Will a NFL Player Take a Knee at the Super Bowl?
Where is the “Take a Knee” movement today as the National Football League’s (NFL) 100th season comes to a close, four seasons after Colin Kaepernick first took a seat, and then a knee, during the national anthem before NFL games? In our 2018 Contexts Magazine: Sociology for the Public article, we wanted to put concrete numbers to the protests, showing both how many players protested within a week, as well as how many teams had at least one player protesting. In general, protests were small in terms of overall numbers of players and number of teams with at least one player protesting in 2016. However, during the 2017 season following President Trump’s comments and tweets about NFL players at a campaign rally in Georgia, we saw a massive spike in players protesting. The number of players protesting peaked with 450 players representing 26 of the 32 NFL teams. We saw a similar, but smaller spike, following negative comments about players by Houston Texans owner Bob McNair. We argued that this is because the comments by Trump and McNair attempted to demean and discredit the players by stigmatizing them and framing the act of kneeling or raising a fist as dishonorable conduct rather than nonviolent protest, which then in turn mobilized more protest.
In November 2019, Kaepernick had a NFL tryout muddled with backstage and frontstage controversy. It resulted in a new Nike campaign for Kaepernick but no NFL deal. With Kaepernick still unable to find employment in the NFL, who in the NFL is still taking a knee? In reality taking a knee has almost completely disappeared during NFL games, save for Eric Reid and Kenny Stills. But while it has all but disappeared in the NFL, it is still seen throughout society. Megan Rapinoe took a knee to support Kaepernick early on, until US Soccer created rules against it. But more importantly, across social media we see grade school, high school, and college athletes continuing to take a knee. At the Pan American games in August 2019, we saw fencing gold and bronze medalist Race embolden take a knee during his medal ceremony, and hammer throwing gold medalist Gwen Berry raise a fist at hers (itself an homage to John Carlos and Tommy Smith historic pose at the 1968 Mexico Olympic games). Both athletes publicly stated their protests were to highlight inequality in the United States. Minnesota’s 2018 Teacher of the Year, Kelly Holstine, took a knee behind Donald Trump during the 2020 NCAA BCS national championship football game. So, while Kaepernick is still deliberately left off NFL rosters, and the number of players taking a knee has dwindled, the reality is the movement lives on.
But the movement also lives on in different ways, primarily through the hefty dollar figures of the agreement between the NFL and the Players Coalition. The Players Coalition is a group of current and former players formed as a result of Kaepernick’s initial protests (though the coalition itself has a complicated history). While Kaepernick remains unsigned, many who support Kaepernick and the larger movement have been frustrated with the NFL, the Players Coalition, and perhaps most recently with Jay-Z following the agreement between the NFL and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. That frustration peaked following Jay-Z’s statement during a press conference about the partnership between the NFL and Roc Nation: Jay-Z said:
For me it’s like action, [an] actionable item, what are we gonna do with it? Everyone heard, we hear what you’re saying, and everybody knows I agree with what you’re saying [in Kaepernick’s underlying message]. So, what are we gonna do? You know what I’m saying? [Help] millions and millions of people, or we get stuck on Colin not having a job.
Because for those of us that study race, protest and social movements, or sports, or those of us who are simply football fans, this shouldn’t be a: help millions of disenfranchised people OR protest the NFL over Kaepernick’s continued blacklisting. It should be a BOTH/AND scenario. And, we should be clear, Jay-Z’s decision, as so eloquently stated by Dave Zirin, is one of capitalism and business. Jay-Z is a billionaire with dreams of becoming an NFL owner. What better way to do that than partner with them “to do social justice work” and be the recipient of a million Twitter slings and arrows.
To be fair to the NFL and its players, since before Kaepernick’s protest and the subsequent Player’s Coalition, they have long been involved extensively in social justice work. In fact, NFL players have ALWAYS been involved in their communities, partnered with UNCF, and performed public charitable work, as well as behind the scenes giving. But with the 7 year, $89 million commitment from the NFL, a new light has been shined on this area. The “Inspire Change Initiative,” that Jay-Z and Roc Nation signed on to will provide grants, assist grassroots organizations, and more.
Does this amplify the goals of Kaepernick and others, or merely co-opt them? Co-optation is something that movement scholars are always curious to examine in successful social movements. The reality is that the concert put on prior to the opening 2019 game between the Bears and Packers raised $400,000 for community organizations in Chicago. Wasn’t the point of Kaepernick’s protest to both raise awareness and bring resources to bear on issues of inequality? If that’s the case, isn’t the Players Coalition and Roc Nation’s partnership doing both those things?
Like many social movements, the Take a Knee movement will leave a complicated legacy for us to analyze, disentangling its claims, goals, personalities, and co-optation. Only time will tell what the actual future of the movement is or what the convergence of interests will result in. Yet, it remains true that the inequalities that Kaepernick originally protested against still remain and are ever present. As a recent study by a team of sociologists shows us, in American society today, the sixth leading cause of death for young Black men in America is police violence. This gross inequality points to a larger problem, one that is not easily remedied with Roc Nation dollars or reducing single-parent households, as Mr. Shawn Corey Carter would like to make us believe.
Simón E. Weffer is in the department of sociology and the Center for Latino and Latin American Studies at Northern Illinois University, Rodrigo Dominguez-Martinez is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Maryland–College Park, and Raymond Jenkins is in the graduate program in sociology at Northern Illinois University.