Taking a knee for justice

Football teams and their fans are conflicted over the practices of kneeling, sitting, joining arms, raising a fist, or staying in the locker room during the National Football League’s (NFL’s) pre-game national anthem ceremonies. The protests began in the wake of the videotaped police shootings of 2 young Black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.  To draw attention to these events and to issues of racism and injustice, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick declined to stand while the national anthem was being played at preseason games in 2016.  Over the past 2 football seasons, Kaepernick’s individual protest has gathered both support and condemnation.

Some wonder what the protests are accomplishing.  Back when it all started, in the summer of 2016, Garfield High School football team member Duncan King wondered the same thing. He offered some personal answers in his essay, “Kneeling for a Nation: How One Team’s Participation in a Nationwide Movement Developed into a Force for Local Civic Change.” The essay won a 2017 Stim Bullitt Civic Courage award – and a $5,000 scholarship – from the Seattle Public Library Foundation.

In his essay King discussed the aftermath of his team’s decision to kneel – media attention, Facebook likes, threats of violence (and actual violence), as well as shared introspection about why they chose to kneel: “Common themes were police violence against black males, school segregation and underfunding, and governmental and institutional racism.”  In addition to kneeling on the field, the Garfield team initiated an open discussion with the Seattle Police Department and were invited to the regional conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Local NFL players have also taken action.  Last month Seattle Seahawk Doug Baldwin joined NFL President Roger Goodell in a letter to the U.S. Congress that supported a bill to reduce minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.  One quote from the letter emphasizes the deep connections between NFL teams and their home communities:

“When the hometowns of our players or the 32 communities in which our clubs are located are hurting – whether from natural disasters or those that are man-made – so too are our teams. And like most Americans, our owners, players, coaches and clubs spring into action to help. Over the last two seasons, one particular issue that has come to the forefront for our players and our teams is the issue of justice for all…. The bottom line is, that we all want to make our communities better.”

To provide a platform for maintaining a clear focus on free speech and collective action, Seahawks player Michael Bennett joined other athletes in founding Athletes for Impact (A4I), a new organization to “build an inclusive and global network of athletes committed to equity and social change.” Bennett’s reach extends beyond an elite circle of athletes: a recent pregame ESPN video featured his volunteer work with youth at King County’s Juvenile Detention Facility.

On the field and off, in Seattle and across the nation, football players find themselves in an unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable spotlight.  American heroes by definition, until recently all they had to do was play the game.  Now, under intensive scrutiny by the media and even the President, they’re having to take a stand.

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Essay submissions for the 2018 Stimson Bullitt Civic Courage Scholarship Competition will be accepted from January 1 to March 15. More information can be found at the Seattle Public Library Foundation.

Communities Count provides data on racial disparities for almost every indicator, including income, wealth, on-time graduation, and public safety.  In 2011-2015, the homicide rate among King County Blacks was 5.2 times the county average (forthcoming on Communities Count).  And in 2016, race/ethnicity/ancestry accounted for 62% of the motivations for hate crimes in reported by Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs. Communities Count will update hate crime data for King County in early 2018.