Yesterday, the NFL issued a new policy requiring all players on the field to stand during the national anthem or risk league-issued fines.
For supporters of the protests, the optics are tough. It’s a rule made by a mostly-white management to police the expression of a mostly-black workforce, on issues of vital importance to many of the player’s fans and communities.
It also politicizes the national anthem over a spectacle that has little to do with patriotic values.
And it looks like capitulation to a petulant President who is using his bully pulpit to harangue private citizens and jeopardize their livelihoods, while distracting his viewers from the bigger issues facing the country and his administration.
Sports and entertainment are two of the only areas where black talent has consistently earned a platform big enough to raise social issues, so the silencing feels familiar. “Taking a knee” clearly had legs.
And by talking about the anthem, we’re not talking about other things like criminal justice reform, underinvestment in communities of color, or how pro-football is a gig that comes with a 100% injury rate and the potential of devastating permanent harm, like CTE. What if the NFL were regulated by OSHA? asks Deadspin.
Oh, and Colin Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job.
Allies will emerge, like Jets chairman Christopher Johnson who plans to absorb any fines incurred for anthem-related player protests. And I expect that the athletes themselves will find creative ways to make their feelings known about the policy and the larger issues the protests hoped to highlight.
At times of great division and disappointment, people like to invoke Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his belief in the long arc of a moral universe that bends toward justice.
But along the way, it also bends toward power.
Consider Rose Robinson, a black high-jumper from Chicago, who is believed to be the first athlete to refuse to stand for the U.S. national anthem, at the Pan Am Games in 1959.
The one-time Olympic hopeful also refused to go on State Department-sponsored goodwill trips – which she called their “propaganda machine” – and turned to the black press to share her grievances about life in a segregated country.
I stumbled on Robinson’s story in an interview with Amira Rose Davis, an assistant professor of history at Penn State and co-host of the feminist sports podcast, Burn it All Down. She joined The Nation’s Dave Zirin in a fascinating conversation about her research and her forthcoming book, Can’t Eat A Medal: The Lives and Labors of Black Women Athletes in the Age of Jim Crow.
Like Kaepernick, Robinson was shut out of her sport. Her advocacy for civil rights landed her in jail, on a trumped-up charge of tax evasion involving $380. It led to a very public hunger strike that turned her into a minor cause celebre among a small number of supporters.
And then she was forgotten.
But I cautiously predict that Kaepernick and the other players won’t be. The arc of the sports universe has always bent toward power – now, no longer just derived from traditional authority, but from social movements, consumers, and celebrity “brands” who can survive the sanctions of the day to stay in the spotlight.
I wonder what the Rose Robinsons of history could have done with a social media megaphone, and how different the world would be now if they’d been able to get traction. Best we can do is remember her name and have faith that the long arc of a new power gets us somewhere near justice for all, sooner rather than later.