Before Monday’s preseason game between the Cleveland Browns and the New York Giants, the ongoing series of national anthem demonstrations by NFL players broke a barrier.
For the first recorded time, a white player took a knee.
As the anthem sounded, several Browns players knelt in what they later said was prayer. Among them was Seth DeValve, who is white and whose wife is African-American.
“I wanted to support my African-American teammates today who wanted to take a knee,” he said in a post-game interview. “We wanted to draw attention to the fact that there’s things in this country that still need to change.”
These peaceful demonstrations, which were popularized last year by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, have roared back into the conversation as the NFL season ramps up and the nation continues to process the racially-fueled clashes that rocked Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this month.
During the 2016 NFL preseason, Kaepernick said he was compelled to kneel in part because of a spate of police-involved shootings that resulted in the deaths of black men, including Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
“I am not looking for approval,” he said at the time. “I have to stand up for people that are oppressed.”
For some black NFL stars, like Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch and Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, taking a knee, sitting or standing with a fist raised has become a common pre-game practice in the ensuing year. Slowly, but very visibly, others have joined in.
Jenkins’ teammate, Chris Long, who is white, put his arm around Jenkins in solidarity as Jenkins raised his fist high before a mid-August preseason game. It is worth noting that Long, who is vocal about his political views, played college ball in Charlottesville, at the University of Virginia.
“I think it’s a good time for people who look like me to be here for people fighting for equality,” Long said after the game.
Whether these players know it, and whether they kneel with the fact in mind, the connection between race and the national anthem has a painful yet little-known root.
The national anthem’s forgotten lyrics
“The Star-Spangled Banner” was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 about the American victory at the Battle of Fort McHenry. We only sing the first verse, but Key penned three more. This is the third verse:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore,
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a Country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep’s pollution.
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.
The mere mention of “slave” is not entirely remarkable; slavery was alive and well in the United States in 1814. Key himself owned slaves, was an anti-abolitionist and once called his African brethren “a distinct and inferior race of people.”
In order to bolster their numbers, British forces offered slaves freedom in British territories in return for joining their cause. These black recruits formed the Colonial Marines and were looked down upon by people like Key, who saw their actions as treasonous.
As an anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” has never been a unanimous fit. Since it was officially designated as the national anthem in 1931, Americans have debated the suitability of its militaristic lyrics and difficult tune. (Some have offered up “God Bless America” and “America the Beautiful” as alternatives.)
Strong words from two stars, generations apart
It’s no surprise black athletes throughout American history have expressed a complicated relationship with the anthem and the flag for which it plays.
“I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world.”
That might sound like Kaepernick, whose refusal to stand during the national anthem in 2016 invited strong condemnation and rendered him a pariah among many in his own league.
Those actually are the words of Jackie Robinson, beloved baseball pioneer and civil rights activist, writing in his 1972 autobiography, “I Never Had It Made.”
When Kaepernick first started getting attention for sitting during the pre-game anthem last year, the struggling quarterback said he would not stand “to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Athletes and the American ritual
The American ritual of the national anthem has always been a crucible for patriotism and protest. It presents a particularly fraught dynamic for sports stars, since sports events are often so closely tied with the rhetoric of American pride. When a highly visible opinion rises in opposition to a highly visible symbol, the result is always incendiary.
Around the same time Jackie Robinson was using his achievements to advance civil rights causes, two African-American US Olympic runners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists in a black power salute during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City as the anthem was playing. Earlier that same year, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated.
The result was iconic. The reaction was ugly. Racial slurs were hurled at the pair, and an article in Time called it a “public display of petulance.”
Today, similar criticism has been leveled against Kaepernick, a biracial Super Bowl quarterback who was raised by white adoptive parents and who made $13 million in 2014. He was called “spoiled.” He was called far worse in Twitter mentions.
It’s a lot of ire for a gesture with a strong historical and rhetorical precedent.
One doesn’t even need to dip into iconic moments in history to follow the trend.
Former Cleveland Cavaliers player Dion Waiters refused to be on the court for the anthem in 2014. And Denver Nuggets player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf courted criticism after he deliberately sat during the anthem in 1996.
In fact, Kaepernick didn’t stand for the first two preseason games of 2016 before his actions began to make front-page news. He wasn’t in uniform for those games, so no one noticed. Or if they did, they didn’t care.