Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

3 Questions for People Upset About the NFL "Kneelers"

Ah yes, another media/cultural controversy that sparks outrage on multiple fronts, and is eclipsed and basically immediately forgotten by another outrageous event in a few days. And that sentence could describe almost every major news event for the past 18 months or so.* But I’m specifically referring to the recent back-and-forth surrounding the NFL protests sparked by Colin Kaepernick.

For those not familiar, just google Kaepernick. His protest (kneeling during the performance of the national anthem at the beginning of every football game) unleashed a wave of similar protests throughout the NFL, which of course unleashed a fury of responses. In May of this year, the NFL officially put out a statement and policy indicating that players “shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem,” and those who choose not to stand “may stay in the locker room until after the anthem has been performed.”

This is a pretty big deal, on multiple levels. A lot can be (and has been) said about it, and I have found myself in many conversations with individuals who have strong opinions in different directions. My personal opinion can be summed up pretty succinctly: I think the protests have been respectful and effective, and have generated much-needed conversation about some social issues that need attention in our country.

If you heartily disagree with my perspective, hold off on cranking out an angry comment. Instead, I have a few genuine questions for you. I don’t expect them to change your mind. But please consider them.

1. What *precisely* is upsetting you?

NFL Kneelers.jpg

This almost seems too obvious to ask, but I actually think it’s important to be clear about what precisely bothers you about this whole thing. Is it because you (or a friend or family member) are part of the military, and kneeling during our anthem feels disrespectful towards that service? Or maybe you know someone who actually died while serving the country in some way, and the flag is emblematic of that sacrifice? Or is it because you see NFL players as rich, entitled athletes who are supposed to simply entertain us? Or, try to be honest with yourself, are you bothered by the racial aspect of this whole ordeal? Do you feel like it’s being unnecessarily “racialized?” Or maybe you’re genuinely uncomfortable by being prodded to think about social issues at the beginning of what’s supposed to be mindless, athletic entertainment?

See, these are actually quite different responses to the same event. I can actually understand someone whose father or brother died in Afghanistan (for example) feeling a little tweaked to watch a wealthy football player refuse to stand for the anthem. I have less sympathy for some of the other responses, but that’s not even the point I’m trying to make here. The point is that these responses are different, and in order to have an intelligent conversation about this we need to be talking about what’s *actually* going on. A conversation about military service and sacrifice will have a much different starting point from a conversation about race and social issues in America, which is also different from a conversation about entertainment, the money athletes are paid in our culture, and the merit of using your celebrity platform to make a public protest. But we can’t make any ground if we can’t clarify what we need to discuss at the outset.

2. Can you articulate the protesters’ viewpoint(s)?

One of the most helpful ground rules that I’ve found for interpersonal conflict management is: “Can you articulate the opposing perspective in such a way that one who holds that perspective would agree that you understand?” If so, the opposing party will almost always feel heard, the conflict will be de-escalated, and fruitful dialogue can continue. And I really think we would do well to apply this to the NFL-protest situation (and conversations about social issues in general).

Momentarily set aside your personal feelings and opinions, and simply listen to various protesters. One thing you’ll find is that they are not univocal. Some emphasize police brutality, others are more concerned about incarceration rates and criminal justice policies, while others are hoping to shine a light on issues like poverty and education in black communities (in some cases, even regarding the specific communities and neighborhoods those players grew up in). You may already have strong feelings about the topics they are raising, and that’s totally fine, but you may also find out 1) that these protests are drawing attention to complicated issues in our culture and 2) that what you are upset about may or may not even connect directly with what the protesters are trying to raise awareness of.

Either way, you’ll have a richer, more informed perspective of your own, and that’s never a bad thing.

3. How do you feel about Tim Tebow?


Ok, this seems out of the blue, but hang with me for a moment. In 2017, theologian and provocateur Michael Frost wrote a great piece for the Washington Post, comparing Colin Kaepernick and Tim Tebow’s on-field displays, and how the divergent reactions to the two of them illuminate the growing cultural rift in our country. Especially if you’re a Christian in America, read that article.

Tebow Kneeling.jpeg

But the reason I’m bringing up Tebow at all is because I have noticed (anecdotally) an interesting pattern: I’ve conversed with many people who are against the protests because “the players shouldn’t be using their athletic platform to make these statements,” or “they’re getting paid a ton of money to play a game, and they should just focus on that and be grateful,” or even just “it’s distracting and making me uncomfortable when I want to watch a fun competition,” but then these same people adore the way Tebow outwardly displayed his faith (personal views!) on the field by painting scripture references into his eye-black, or even kneeling in a prayerful posture! The double-standard here should be painfully obvious. If you’re anti-Kaepernick, but pro-Tebow, perhaps a re-examination of the consistency of your opinions is in order. Don’t pretend you have the ethical high-ground, that you simply want players to focus on what they’re being paid a boatload of money to do, if in reality you are only comfortable with certain expressions of political/social/personal views (ie. when they neatly fit within your own cultural, economic, religious, and yes, even racial, background). So if you like Tebow, and think his ability to express his faith commitments on the field is worth protecting, then to be consistent I believe you should contend in equal manner for the same rights-to-expression of the players whose views don’t like up with yours.

In reality, I’m just arguing for ground rules of healthy dialogue across disagreement. And it speaks to something about our cultural moment that these ideas need to be emphasized so much, but if we can clearly express what precisely upsets us, if we can fairly articulate the real issues the “other side” is engaging with, and if we’ve ruthlessly examined any invisible double-standards in our thinking, then maybe, just maybe, we can actually have a conversation.


*Incidentally,  this environment makes it quite challenging to keep up a blog that engages current events with any amount of thoughtfulness….