In 2016, Colin Kaepernick continued a tradition in US sports by staging a protest against racial injustice during the playing of the US national anthem. Following his initial protest, Kaepernick said:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Kaepernick’s comments were in reference to a series of deaths of unarmed Black American men, such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. Reactions to Kaepernick’s protest were split. Within the NFL and beyond, many Black athletes, performers, fans, and even some coaches and officials joined in the protest against state violence in Black communities. At the same time, many others vociferously objected while claiming to not be racist. The image above illustrates the color-blind racism of the objectors; an anti-black statement of on-going hatred (“We hated Kaepernick before…”) is modified by a racially neutral phrase (“For football reasons”). The denial of racism when protesting an anti-racist protest obscures the ongoing operation of racism as a multifaceted construct that disproportionality targets Black Americans. Moreover, it prevents understanding of the US’s failure to provide equal protections for all citizens when state violence and poverty disproportionately affects Black communities.
As the above figure illustrates, Black and White Americans tend to perceive race and racism differently. To a large extent whites take a more benign view on racialized social problems since they are less impacted by them than Blacks. This may be explained by the fact that ongoing racial segregation keeps them from having many meaningful interactions with Black people. This perceptual gap maps onto attitudes about the players’ protests; supporters of the protests tend to be Black and liberal, while opponents tend to be white and conservative. In fact, NFL fans (like other professional sports fans) have very little face-to-face interaction with players, which contributes to their deep racial misunderstandings and ill-interpretations of Black Americans. It is not coincidental then that the critics’ rhetoric has painted the protests as disrespectful, deviant, anti-patriotic, and anti-American.
To better understand how people interpret the recent protests, we interviewed 32 mostly white university student-athletes who were NFL fans and had a strong interest in the players’ protests. When we began talking to college athletes about the protests, we were well aware that perceptions of and support for or opposition to the protests were largely split along racial and political lines. What surprised us was that the liberal white supporters of the protests (similar to the critics who opposed them) did not articulate a deep understanding of what drove the players’ to protest state violence. Instead, these fans drew on what Eduardo Bonilla Silva calls “color-blind racism” via their ideological appeals to abstract, liberal conceptions of freedom and individualism. Rather than a stated concern with racial justice, support or opposition to the protests turned largely on whether or not the student interpreted the actions as patriotic.
The white student-athletes’ understandings of the players’ protests reveals much about the contemporary operation of white racial power and privilege in the US. Instead of addressing state violence and the material consequences of ongoing racial inequality, their accounts of the protests were predicated on their personal perceptions and investments in whiteness. In other words, they collectively interpreted the protests through what sociologist Joe Feagin calls a “white racial frame” that views the US and its social institutions, particularly the police and military, as the authors of prosperity, freedom, justice, and equality for everyone—even when whites enjoy what Ethnic Studies professor Evelyn Nakano Glenn calls “unequal freedoms”. As one student-athlete stated, “The players should be punished… Go protest somewhere else where it isn’t disrespecting the nation. They aren’t gaining respect by kneeling, all that they are gaining is disrespect. They are corrupting our nation by ruining the patriotic fun before a sports game.”
Ultimately, fans’ whiteness functioned in ways that blinded them from considering how or why race could be central to the protests. Additionally, about one fourth of the student-athletes expressed a firm white supremacist ideology that perceived players as breaking an unstated, imaginary racial contract where the bestowal of their fanship and adoration was predicated on the player protesters acting as extensions of US civic pride, freedom, and equality without reference to enduring US racial violence and oppression. The other group of respondents took an attitude of white privilege by describing the protests in racially neutral language of a civil society where all citizens have equal opportunity to engage in political protest, ignoring how they as white fans benefited from the racial injustice and inequality being protested. So while there was a clear distinction between their two positions, neither position demonstrated awareness of the everyday challenges Black players encounter on and beyond the playing field.
In both cases, we found ideas about patriotism politically disempowering for Black player protesters and Black Americans more broadly. Students that found the protests unpatriotic, unapologetically refuted the players’ rights to protest racial injustice and inequality. Instead, they characterized the players as immature, deviant, and disrespectful to the nation, veterans, the flag, and the National Anthem. Further, they argued that players had an obligation to provide them with uninterrupted entertainment since they—the fans—pay the players’ ‘inflated’ salaries. According to one student-athlete, “Yes, being a social activist is extremely important, but it needs to be done on the right platform. An NFL football game is not the one to do it at. I feel like it’s rather ridiculous to protest the US when you’re being paid millions of dollars to throw around a football, life sounds so hard for these people.”
The students who found the protests patriotic embraced protesters that acted according to liberal white ideals of civility that may have reminded them of the Civil Rights Movements. If the players were to engage in radical political action or directly challenge the surplus flow of resources into their white dominated communities, then these liberal students could easily react with the charge of incivility and deny the patriotism of the protesters even if they were still working towards racial justice. As one student-athlete stated, “They should be allowed to exercise their rights in whatever ways they want to. As long as they are not breaking any laws or causing violence by their actions, they should be free to do what every other law-abiding American is allowed to do. If their actions become violent or harmful in some way, a line would need to be drawn.”
Racism today often operates covertly, perpetuating black-white divisions between mostly Black, working-class NFL player protesters and their mostly white, affluent fans. We found that much of these white fans’ racial animus is reflective of their own misunderstanding and investment in white racial power and privilege, their overall lack of regard for Black Americans’ lives, and their desire to be entertained by Black athletic bodies. We also found market relations empowered white fans to adore black athletes on the condition that these athletes never challenge their consumer pleasures by drawing attention to the realities of institutional racism and state sanctioned police violence. As one student stated, “Freedom of speech goes out the door when you are under contract by a corporation because you technically represent them. So now because individuals within the organization are kneeling, the entire National Football League looks bad.” Their lack of knowledge and understanding of the racial experiences of the player protesters beyond the field keeps many of them from understanding the meanings and motivations of the player protesters.
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1903 that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Although racial language has become more coded and indirect in the post-Civil Rights era, the NFL players’ protests demonstrates the on-going truth of Du Bois’ statement. The color line in the United States creates an unequal material reality where Black people experience far greater rates of state violence, and white people tend to poorly understand that racial reality. This leads to a contradiction between the “American Creed” that celebrates equality and a material reality of profound racial inequality. How, then, do white Americans hold two contradictory ideas in their heads without seeing the contradiction? We argue that it is in the myth of patriotism, or the idea that the United States, a nation with a long and ongoing history of racial oppression, is also the vehicle to achieve racial justice. Such an ideology is evident in the fact that the protests by Black athletes for racial justice are interpreted, both by white supporters and opponents, as being a test of patriotism, diverting attention from the systemic racial inequalities that permeate US society.
Kenneth Sean Chaplin is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and affiliate of the Department of Exercise Science, Physical Science & Sports Studies at John Carroll University. His research examines the intersections of race, class, gender, and culture in sport and higher ed. You can find out more about him at http://sites.jcu.edu/sociology/professor/kenneth-sean-chaplin/
Jeffrey Montez de Oca is an Associate Professor of Sociology and founding director of the Center for the Critical Study of Sport at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He is currently the President-elect of the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport and author of Discipline and Indulgence: College Football, Media, and the American Way of Life during the Cold War (Rutgers University Press, 2013). You can find out more about him at https://www.uccs.edu/ccss/oca