49° Good Afternoon
49° Good Afternoon

Debate: Kneeling during the national anthem

In the wake of protests at NFL stadiums Sunday, below are two opinions on the NFL and the national anthem.

What's your take? Email your thoughts to or tweet to @NewsdayOpinion.

Point: Standing up for justice by kneeling during anthem

By Jeffery Robinson, Colin Kaepernick has not
Photo Credit: AP

By Jeffery Robinson,
Colin Kaepernick has not been involved in "off field" scandals, has committed no crime, and has donated almost $1 million to community organizations over the last year, yet the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback is considered an outcast for kneeling during the national anthem.
Some say it's because football is no place for politics. Not true. Game day at every American stadium includes people waving signs endorsing candidates and offering literature for this or against that. Singing the anthem while jets fly overhead is a political moment. On the field or on the stands, standing at attention with your hand over your heart is a political statement. Politics at football games is as American as apple pie.
Some say kneeling for the anthem shows disrespect. Respect and love for America doesn't require blindness to America's failure to honor its promise of racial justice and equality. Does standing for the anthem mean these failures don't matter? Does standing show pride that America waited 89 years after the Civil War to acknowledge that blacks were "good enough" to go to school with whites? How proud are we that in 2017 America's schools are just as segregated as in 1954?
Kneeling for the national anthem is not lack of support for America's successes any more than standing for the anthem is support for America's racial justice failures. As Kaepernick's 49ers teammate, Eric Reid, put it, "What Colin and Eli (Harold) and I did was peaceful protest fueled by faith in God to help make our country a better place. And I feel like I need to regain control of that narrative and not let people say what we're doing is un-American. Because it's not. It's completely American."
Kaepernick silently knelt, making no attempt to disrupt the singing of the anthem. He did not try to prevent anyone from standing. This textbook non-violent protest is totally American.
Some say Kaepernick disrespected the military. Recognizing America's failure to achieve racial justice and equality shows no disrespect for our military. Our military heroes fight for freedom, for the principles of racial equality and justice, not for a song, or a flag. We honor them most not by singing a song but by respecting the values they fight to protect.
In 1939 Mary Bethune said about black soldiers, "We have fought for America with all of her imperfections. Not so much for what she is but for what we know she can be." Kaepernick is asking us to realize, our true potential.
The anthem, after all, reflects America's early connection to white supremacy. The third verse celebrates the murder of slaves:
"No refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave. And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave."
When the anthem celebrates the murder of your ancestors, maybe it is time to remind people of American values.
In demonstration of complete ignorance of Martin Luther King Jr.'s teachings and beliefs, Clemson University's football coach Dabo Swinney claimed King would not have supported Kaepernick. Anyone with actual knowledge of what King stood for knows he would have rejoiced at a rich, black athlete risking fame and fortune by non-violently protesting for justice. If college athletes are being taught something different it is blasphemy, not truth.
Kaepernick isn't the first athlete to speak out, though he does it without the perils to those who came before him. John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised fists and were kicked out of the Olympics. Muhammed Ali refused to step forward in his draft line; he lost his title. Jackie Robinson was in a WWII segregated military unit, and refused to stand up when he was ordered to the back of the bus, taking a court- martial instead.
Today Robinson is an American icon. No player in Major League Baseball wears number 42 -- except for one day of the season when all players on all teams wear it. Robinson wrote about his first World Series game: "There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion. ... As I write this 20 years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made."
Kaepernick surely had it better than the black athletes who came before him, but there simply is no denying how pervasive racial injustice remains in our country. His critics might not want to be reminded of racial injustice while watching football, but imagine if they had to live with it.
Jeffery Robinson is the director of the American Civil Liberty Union's Trone Center for Justice and Equality. He wrote this for

Counterpoint: NFL protests need to take a knee

By Patrice Lee Onwuka, As the NFL
Photo Credit: AP

By Patrice Lee Onwuka,
As the NFL season opens players are expected to take a knee during the national anthem in protest of policing and our justice system. The protests were out of place to begin with, and the novelty of these free-speech expressions has worn off. It's time for players to stop being a prime-time spectacle.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the face of this NFL movement, explained last fall, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color ..."
Our justice system -- like other big-government institutions -- serves a critical function in our society, but has serious problems. Kneeling during the national anthem is an emotional response to problems that require other solutions.
These players should direct their activism elsewhere. Here's why:
--There's a difference between being an employee and an activist. As citizens, we are free to challenge, support and mobilize for -- or against -- any cause we're passionate about. However, we don't have unfettered free speech or free expression in the workplace -- and for these players, the football field is the office.
The First Amendment limits only the government's ability to suppress speech. Courts have consistently emphasized that they do not apply to private-sector employees.
NFL players are employees of their teams, and the teams belong to the National Football League. Franchises and the NFL can set rules, guidelines and expectations for players. They can also penalize behavior inconsistent with their rules or branding as they see fit.
While the NFL does not prohibit players from sitting during the national anthem, these demonstrations are damaging to an industry that ties its branding so closely to our national symbols.
As NFL Hall of Famer Franco Harris commented, "When (Kaepernick) steps out on that field, now it's more than just him. It's his teammates, it's the NFL, and it's the fans."
Players suit up for the field in the same way that fast-food workers dress up for work. They bear the names, logos and visual branding of the company they represent. When customers get bad service from a waiter, they may hold the restaurant responsible by not eating there again.
The NFL is no different. Ratings have fallen and, according to recent polling, anthem protests top the reasons for why viewers are tuning out.
Kaepernick and other players are free to protest on their own time, but it should not be at game time.
--There's a price to pay for activism. Black athletes have a history of using national sports to bring visibility to civil rights and other issues. Medal-winning sprinters John Carlos and Tommy Smith raised their fists in the air during the national anthem in the 1968 Olympics. Mahmoud Abdul Rauf refused to stand for the anthem during the 1995-96 NBA season, because he believed it went against his religious beliefs.
Some athletes paid a price. Muhammad Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War and was stripped of his heavyweight title. Carlos and Smith were banned for life from the Olympics and Abdul Rauf gave up his promising NBA career -- fading into obscurity.
The loss of glory, endorsements and lucrative contracts are costly, but they pale in comparison to the bloodshed to defend our country. Protesting the national anthem and our flag demonstrates irreverence for the sacrifices of those who pay the ultimate price for our freedoms -- including our displays of defiance.
--The national anthem is a rallying cry for unity, not division. Penned by Francis Scott Key in 1814, "The Star-Spangled Banner" immortalized an important victory for our young nation. Key's poem was a much-needed injection of patriotism and would become a unifying call for every American.
Today, our political leaders are unproductively partisan, our institutions are broken in ways that harm too may Americans, and our citizenry is disengaged. But, our nation is still full of promise, opportunity and hope.
Players exploiting high-visibility moments to protest the symbols of our unity are out of place and end up working against productive efforts to tackle these problems. Instead of enlightening uninformed Americans and gaining public support for efforts like criminal justice reforms at the federal and state level, these protests are distractions.
Unless taking a knee during the national anthem changes our justice system and policing for the better or fosters greater trust between communities of color and law enforcement, it's time for these players to stand up and find a find better way to pursue policy and social change.
Patrice Lee Onwuka is a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women's Forum. She wrote this for


We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.