American NFL players and the fight against racial inequality: gestures as political activism

7 minutes to read
Article
Anna De Fina
20/10/2017

Recent protests by African American football players belonging to the American National Football League (NFL) have brought to light the significance of gesture as a form of political stance-taking and as an effective medium of communication. They have also emphasized that people’s interpretations of what public gestures mean and the importance attributed to them are deeply influenced by wide social, political and historical contexts in which power relations play a central role.  Silent gestures of protest are not a new phenomenon in sports, particularly when it comes to African American athletes and their status as citizens and members of American society.  

A small history of gestures as political activism

Many in my generation will certainly remember an iconic and famous photo of Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two track athletes who won the gold and bronze medal in the Mexico City Olympics of 1968. In the picture the two men are shown standing on the podium, looking down with their fists raised during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Another famous photo, taken a few years later, in 1972, portrays another pair of track athletes, Vince Matthews and Wayne Collett, also African Americans, standing on the podium during the playing of the anthem in a relaxed posture that was defined in a Times editorial as “slouching” and “defiant” (Johnk 2017).

Gestures of protest by athletes have multiplied since political activists in the United States have raised awareness of widespread police brutality against African Americans in the country, particularly after the shooting deaths of many young African American have been brought to light. Thus, for example, in 2014, members of the St. Louis Rams football team raised their arms in a "hands up, don't shoot" pose as they walked onto the field before a football game. On the same occasion, another player from the same team put white tape around his arms with the following words written on it "Mike Brown" and "My Kids Matter"(Chow, 2017). The writings evoked the death of an African American youth shot by the police in the same year and the popular slogan “black lives matter,” created in response to the killing of another young black man, Trevor Martin, after the acquittal of his shooter.  

Silent gestures of protest are not a new phenomenon in sports, particularly when it comes to African American athletes and their status as citizens and members of American society.

In recent times African American athletes have escalated their use of the strategy of symbolically drawing attention to social injustice through body language. In August 2016 Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, took a defiant stance by sitting down while the national anthem was played before the start of games. He later said to the NFL media “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 paid for his gesture by losing his job, but he inspired many other athletes to do the same and after his protest, many NFL players have continued to kneel when the National Anthem is played.

But while these actions in the past have been mostly discussed in the world of sports, recently they have been brought to national attention by Donald Trump through speeches and tweets. He started on September 22, when, addressing a crowd in Alabama, he asked his audience, “Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He is fired. He's fired!’". He then continued his attacks with a series of twitter messages arguing that NFL team owners should compel players to stand up, that the African American players are “disrespecting” the ”beautiful” American anthem, the flag and the country and that they should be thankful for making millions of dollars instead of protesting. As a response to those tweets, NFL players from many different teams chose a variety of gestures of protest starting on the Sunday following the Atlanta speech: from kneeling, to standing with interlaced arms to staying in the locker rooms during the playing of the National Anthem. A next chapter in the symbolic battle, was the widely publicized gesture by Mike Pence, vice-president of the US, who left the stadium during a football game on October 7 when players did not stand for the anthem.

The battle around the protest

The battle around the protest of football players underscores the great significance that gestures of protest can acquire in specific historical moments and contexts and such prominence explains the violent reactions that dominant economic and political powers unleash against the actors who adopt them. Gestures are part of all cultures and often they turn out to be more effective than words because being inherently ambiguous they can be read in many ways. At the same time, gestures have historical significance because they evoke other gestures and remit to past struggles carried out by members of the same group to which the protesters belong. So when African Americans in the US raise their fists, we are reminded of the struggles of many other African Americans who performed the same gesture during the civil protests of the sixties and seventies, and thus they reaffirm a link between their condition today and their condition then. But because gestures are such an integral and natural part of human communication, they do not always receive the attention that those made by the NFL players protesters have received. 

The battle around the protest of football players underscores the great significance that gestures of protest can acquire in specific historical moments and contexts "

This points to the fact that it takes particular circumstances and stages to turn gestures into powerful tools of expression. The stage of national or international sports is one that can hardly be ignored because it is at the center of multimillion dollar businesses. Football teams in the US draw millions of fans and generate millions in revenue. As a consequence, everything that goes on in a football stadium has the potential for reaching huge audiences. In that sense, although racial inequality permeates all layers of American society, pointing to it in the world of sports turns out to be particularly dangerous for the status quo. It is dangerous because it draws attention to concrete manifestations of inequality. For example in the case of football, it may remind people of the fact that African Americans constitute the great majority among team members, but do not own one single team since all owners, with no exception, are white. It is dangerous because it demonstrates that racial solidarity can reach across the borders created by power and money leading individuals who are supposed to buy into a certain system to question it. 

Finally, it is dangerous because it threatens existing hierarchies between players and those who “own” them. Thus, when Trump tells African American football players that they should be grateful for earning huge sums of money, he is basically telling them that they should shut up and play, forget who they are and accept the perverse mechanism that turns sports a money making businesses and them into instruments of that process. The fact that NFL players, the protagonist of the most American of sports, not only have not shut up but are receiving a great deal of media attention explains why Trump, who picks his enemies very carefully with ratings and audiences in mind, felt compelled to intervene and did so by playing an old but popular card: patriotism. In this version of patriotism, allegiance to the symbols of the nation (in this case the flag and the anthem) and to its supreme defender (the army) needs to be unconditional and without reserve. Thus, those who raise any doubts about the ability of the nation to represent them are automatically accused of being unpatriotic and often also of betraying those principles that animate the military, leading soldiers to supreme sacrifices in name of the community. Thus, patriotism is basically identified with critical acceptance of an abstract concept of nation and of its symbols. NFL players’ protests point to a very different view: a perspective from which national unity is not a given but needs to be constructed and affirmed around principles such as justice and equality. This different conceptualization implies that citizens have the right and the duty to show their inconformity when principles that they regard as fundamental to democracy are broken.

Invoking patriotism

The strategy of invoking patriotism is, however, a very powerful one in a country where nationalism is taught as a supreme value starting from infancy through school education and the repetition of rituals throughout key moments in individual and collective life,  and continuously evoked through the ubiquitous display of the American flag not only on national buildings, but as often, in private homes and dwellings. Thus, lack of patriotism is something that many sports fans cannot forgive even in their most beloved champions. Playing this card has therefore been a very effective means through which Donald Trump and his followers have put pressure on team owners and players in order to terminate their insubordination. Together with these attacks centered on American “values”, Trump has used direct threats of economic sanctions against the teams and of future boycotts on games, thus prompting the league’s Commissioner Roger Goodell to try and negotiate a resolution to the conflict.

It is not clear whether these strategies will produce the intended result of silencing the dissenting voices. What is clear instead is that social and economic inequalities will not only continue to reign in the US but that they will be intensified under the Trump presidency. At the same time, a debate on the issues raised by the players has started to raise to national prominence drawing many to take position in favor of the African American NFL team members. Thus, no matter how things end, players protesting injustice have successfully broken the silence on the relationships between sports, race and inequality and without uttering a word but by using the power of their body they have managed to open a national conversation that should have started long time ago.

References

Chow, K. A Brief History Of Racial Protest In Sport , NPR, 12, 02.2014 

Johnk, Z. National anthem protests by black athletes have a long history. New York Times, 09, 25, 2017