When Colin Kaepernick, then quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, first chose to sit on his team’s bench rather than stand for the United States national anthem, hardly anyone noticed.
Even when NFL players eventually caught on and followed Kaepernick’s lead, the ‘Take A Knee’ movement could scarcely be classed as such, let alone one that would ignite a worldwide discussion. Fourteen months and dozens of symbolic knees taken later, what has developed is not of Kaepernick’s doing. No, there is only one man responsible – the Tweeter of the Free World himself.
An issue that has divided the whole country might ordinarily be one that a president would seek to drop. Not Trump, reigniting the debate this week:
There is significance to the location of Trump’s most incendiary remarks, and that is not those made on Twitter. When he branded NFL players “sons of bitches” for “disrespecting our flag” at a campaign rally in Alabama, whether consciously or not, he did so in the very heartland of American football.
While 70% of players are black, a crucial statistic at the heart of ‘Take A Knee’, football remains and always has been a cornerstone of white America. The sport’s culture is ingrained in Republican strongholds with older populations. The south is home to many of the leading football colleges, the University of Alabama included.
While Trump has met with fierce opposition from within the NFL, even from his ‘good friend’ Tom Brady, who to many is a pillar of white American football culture, the fans are a different story. As Trump wasted no time in reminding the NFL, its TV ratings are down 7.5% on the same point in the season last year. As Trump wasted no time in endorsing, several team’s fans have booed their own players for kneeling during the anthem.
The question of why the players are kneeling – as Kaepernick put it, ‘to make people realise what’s really going on in this country’ – is by now commonly understood and a rather separate discussion. What is important in understanding why it is such an issue and what it means for the NFL outside of the US, is why they aren’t kneeling.
Before the Baltimore Ravens and the Jacksonville Jaguars met in the first of this season’s games to take place in the UK, the teams duly knelt on the Wembley turf. Of course, the anthem to which they knelt and the flag raised above them had nothing to do with their protest. But it is the very institution of flag and anthem that makes ‘Take A Knee’ so contentious in America.
The concept of playing the national anthem before a domestic sporting event is peculiar verging on absurd in the United Kingdom, as it would be in many countries. That is why fans of the NFL from overseas, that is, from outwith the United States, are siding unanimously with the players.
There simply isn’t an issue of disrespect – there is only the injustice and discrimination that is increasingly clear to all and that is entirely separate from sport.
And in the realm of sport, there is only the NFL. There is only Brady, Kaepernick, Odell Beckham Jr., touchdown passes, interceptions and crunching tackles. There is only the Super Bowl, with its legendary halftime show and glitz. There are only the attractive team names, immersive TV coverage and seesaw high-scoring games.
In the UK, there is the BBC’s ‘The NFL Show’, the widely lauded late-night highlights show fronted by Mark Chapman and ex-professionals Osi Umenyiora and Jason Bell. It has been instrumental in bringing the sport to scores of new followers in this country.
There are the annual games played in London, an attempt to bring the sport to new audiences that dates back to 2007. The four games so far this season have been played to combined Wembley and Twickenham crowds of nearly 250,000, each one verging on a sell-out. There have been no boos of knees taken in London.
A by-product of ‘Take A Knee’ has been worldwide exposure for the sport, the nature of which has been overwhelmingly positive. Divisions in the United States over the issue are a microcosm of those which firmly remain in the wake of November 2016. The rest of the world’s dismay at the election was loud and unified – as is its support for black NFL players in their brave show of solidarity.
Trump’s position on the protests is a double-edged sword for the NFL. The president deliberately deflected attention from racial injustice to the anthem and US flag, bringing domestic controversy for the sport. In the process, he has introduced millions of people across the globe to a sport in which they may never have engaged.
One day, Donald Trump may just be credited with one thing: bringing American football to the world.