NFL Kneeling Debates Dominate Politics, Athletics

Though no Davidson athletes have protested during the anthem to date, AD Chris Clunie recognizes the significance of action-based resistance. Photo by Maya Eggert ‘19

Harris Rogers ‘21

Staff writer

On August 14, 2016, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel during the national anthem for the first time. He made this decision in order to use his platform as a prominent athlete to bring attention to systemic injustices that target people of color within the United States. In particular, Kaepernick was concerned with police shootings of African-Americans, which he saw as an indicator of a society-wide lack of social justice for minority groups, a view strengthened by the frequent acquittal of officers involved in these shootings. When first questioned about his protests, Kaepernick defended himself, stating that he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

He was soon joined by other NFL players, including his former teammate Eric Reid and Seattle’s Jeremy Lane, who also felt their public statuses could serve a purpose in the pursuit of social justice. These early protesters were joined by eleven other players during Week 1 of the 2016 NFL season. The protest was immediately contentious and quickly became a nationally debated issue. Many were quick to condemn Kaepernick and his fellow protesters, accusing them of not respecting the flag, the ideals it stands for and the service members who have fought and died to defend these ideals. However, Kaepernick also received an outpouring of support from those who felt this protest was an act of patriotism, bringing needed attention to issues of race that have long-challenged the United States.

The debate has permeated the highest levels of American political discourse and has become a favorite talking point of President Donald Trump and other prominent political figures. To many observers, the ridicule levelled at the protests from powerful figures only affirms the necessity of a national dialogue on race and police violence.

The Davidson and Charlotte communities are not immune to the physical realities around which this debate rages. On September 20, 2016, Keith Lamont Scott became another victim of police brutality after being shot and killed in a Charlotte apartment complex. The following day protesters took to the streets of Charlotte to speak out against what they saw as an abuse of police power. One of the defining images of this protest included Davidson graduate Braxton Winston ’06, standing shirtless with clenched fist raised, facing down police equipped with riot gear. In the aftermath of the Charlotte protests, Davidson’s most famous alumnus, Steph Curry, also lent his support to Kaepernick’s anthem protests during a press conference, expressing both a condemnation of violence and urging the nation to take Kaepernick seriously.

Davidson students have also staged protests addressing the social justice issues that Kaepernick, and the Charlotte protesters, have sought to address. In December 2016, 250 protesters held a protest condemning police brutality during the town’s Christmas festival. The protesters were mostly Davidson College students. The protest included a reading of the names of those killed in acts of police brutality.

Actual anthem protests are only a recent development in the Charlotte area with this season’s arrival of Eric Reid, a safety for the Carolina Panthers and the second NFL player to kneel during the national anthem. On October 7, 2018, he became the first Carolina Panther to kneel for the anthem. While there have been no reports of Davidson student-athletes protesting the national anthem, students and alumni clearly still care deeply about the issues being addressed, raising questions about the views of the Davidson administration and athletic community towards student-athlete activism and political involvement.

Davidson College Athletic Director Chris Clunie ‘06 is well-positioned to address these issues. A former Davidson student-athlete himself, Clunie has previous experience working as the director of the NBA’s international basketball operations. Clunie, in his first year as Athletic Director, seeks to further an environment of acceptance and responsibility in the Davidson athletic community. This commitment extends to causes of social justice his student-athletes seek to pursue, including potential anthem protests.

When questioned about athletes taking part in protests, Clunie stated that he and the Athletic Department “support our student-athletes with their views and viewpoints, as long as they are doing it in a respectful manner.”

With regard to students potentially facing administrative repercussions for protests, Clunie said, “We want to make sure they’re doing it for a legitimate reason…I think you have a discussion with them to make sure they’re doing it for the right reasons.”

Clunie recognized the importance of doing more than simply protesting, and cited Kaepernick’s community outreach as strengthening the quarterback’s message. “You have to have action behind it,” he stressed. “It’s what else you are doing outside of that to help advance your cause.”

The administration appears willing to allow the Athletic Department to determine its own policies on these issues, mirroring the outlook of Clunie. According to Communications Director Mark Johnson, “[Clunie] speaks for the administration.”

Dr. Gayle Kaufman, a sociology professor who is currently teaching a class entitled “Gender, Race, and Sport,” also sees merit in using the public platform provided by sport to further a social cause. However, she also acknowledges the challenges faced by public figures engaged in protests, particularly athletes.

“There are a lot of people who think athletes shouldn’t voice their opinions,” Kaufman explained. She attributes this belief to the idea that social activism is outside of an athlete’s role. However, Kaufman disputes this assertion. “I think anyone who has a platform, who has people who listen to them, has an opportunity,” added Kaufman.

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