National Anthem Protests Sidelined by Ambiguity

Several members of the San Francisco 49ers kneel during the national anthem before a game Sunday against Los Angeles Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Sideline protests by N.F.L. players, inspired by a gesture by former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, continue but on a smaller scale as the season ends.

On the last day of a year in which football will be remembered as much for sideline posture — and posturing — as for on-the-field play, there were fewer than 20 N.F.L. players kneeling or sitting for the national anthem, according to reports. That was about 1 percent of the league’s players, not counting some locked arms, a few hands on shoulders and at least one fist in the air.

Television barely showed them, and the president made no immediate comments. The national conversation was about playoffs, not protests.

It was an oddly quiet end to an incredibly loud season.

President Trump’s response to the N.F.L. protests was the country’s biggest sports story of the year, according to The Associated Press, although it had little to do with sports. The competition played out on the sidelines, kindled by Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback without a team who spent the season in restrained silence, fully ignited by a president throwing torch bombs on Twitter.

Americans ended up arguing over gestures and posture and the original meaning of the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” What began as a debate over the state of the oppression of people of color became knotted into an argument about patriotism and the military. Some cheered the First Amendment and emergency medical workers (because who can argue over that?) but jeered when others exercised those First Amendment rights.

Now much of the heat has dissipated, if only until the next wrinkle in the protest, maybe in the playoffs.

Games are meant to resolve matters, with the finality of a score. That is not the case for the biggest sports story of the year. Good luck figuring out who won and who lost.

How is success measured in protests and counterprotests? Is it mere heightened awareness, or do we need to point to concrete change? Is the goal to create division or cohesion, disruption or appeasement?

(Let’s step back: Do you even remember what the protests are — or were supposed to be — about? Answer: racial inequality and police brutality, according to Kaepernick, who sat, and later knelt, for pregame national anthems in 2016, and whose last game came on New Year’s Day a year ago.)

The 2017 season really began in the spring, as Kaepernick, 29, with a sterling reputation as a teammate and with a Super Bowl on his résumé, waited to be signed. It never happened. He has since watched more than 40 other quarterbacks be pulled from football’s unemployment rolls instead.

Once the preseason started, Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles raised a fist as his teammate Chris Long put his hand on Jenkins’s back. It was widely considered the first time a white N.F.L. player took part in the protests but mostly started a season-long discussion about what constitutes “took part.”

In Cleveland, more than a dozen Browns players knelt in front of the water coolers, offending many, including the local police union, which said it would not participate in flag ceremonies at future games if such conduct continued. It did not, and when the regular season began a few weeks later, the players ran onto the field with police officers, emergency medical workers and military personnel, everyone locking arms in some sort of chain of unity. (It will be remembered by some as the season’s high point. The Browns went 0-16.)

It all felt only vaguely related to Kaepernick’s unceremonious protests of 2016, which had required three games before anyone noticed. Trying to discern meaning in this season’s protests was as bewildering as defining a catch in the N.F.L. these days.

Ah, but this was 2017, when confusion was merely the first stage of good grief. Just as the regular season began, the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, was asked if Kaepernick was good enough to play in the league.

“I’m not a football expert,” said Goodell, who later signed a five-year contract extension worth roughly $100 million, despite his lack of football expertise.

Only a few players protested during the first two weeks of the regular season, with more of them standing with a raised fist than kneeling or sitting. But things changed dramatically on a Friday in September. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these N.F.L. owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now — out!’” President Trump told a rally of supporters in Alabama. “‘He’s fired. He’s fired!’”

It was the verbal equivalent of starting a barroom brawl. Goodell and many team owners responded, mostly through tepid, prepared statements. Players, unrestrained, took to social media. Trump continued.

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” Trump wrote on Twitter, part of a series of rhetorical bar stools he lobbed for most of a week. “If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

At least 100 N.F.L. players knelt for the anthem that weekend. The Seattle Seahawks and the Tennessee Titans broke league rules by staying inside during the anthem; the Titans missed the singer Meghan Linsey taking a knee at the end of her rendition. Alejandro Villanueva of the Pittsburgh Steelers came out of the stadium tunnel, barely, while his teammates stayed behind, a miscommunication that thrust them into the fray and made Villanueva an accidental hero among people opposed to the protests.

Aaron Rodgers posted an Instagram photo of himself kneeling during warm-ups, which Tom Brady liked, but both stood for the anthem. Their teams, like many others, linked arms.

The protests became a sporting form of interpretive dance. What does it mean to take a knee? Is it different from sitting? What about locking arms? Raising a fist? Putting your hand on someone’s shoulder? When LeSean McCoy of the Buffalo Bills stretched during the anthem, people did mental calisthenics to discern what it meant.

Things got weird. The Dallas Cowboys and the team’s owner, Jerry Jones, who had threatened his players against kneeling, knelt and linked arms on the field. Then they all stood before the anthem started — a flourish no one quite understood.

Fans booed. The president wrote on Twitter the next morning that the booing was the loudest he had ever heard. “Great anger,” he wrote.

Everyone, it seemed, found a reason to take some kind of stand. With the goal unclear — to force all players to stand at attention while we rush to the restroom or the beer line? — there was a lot of ruckus and noise, and little discussion or decorum.

High school athletes, cheerleaders, marching bands, police officers, city councils, rock stars, even a football team of 8-year-olds and a band playing the anthem for an Oakland A’s game knelt. Some marched to the N.F.L. offices or to the gates of stadiums in shows of solidarity.

Conversely, some burned their season tickets or team jerseys and vowed never to watch the N.F.L. again. A Missouri bar owner used the jerseys of two well-known protesting players as doormats to spell out “Lynch Kaepernick.” Plenty, including the president, blamed or credited the controversy for the N.F.L.’s fading television ratings (which were on a slide before the protests).

In early October, Vice President Mike Pence showed up to an Indianapolis Colts game and left abruptly (in what some called a stunt at Trump’s request) when players from the visiting San Francisco 49ers — Kaepernick’s former team — knelt for the anthem.

The N.F.L. and Goodell, longtime practitioners in the status quo, tiptoed the fence, to no one’s satisfaction, waiting for the whole thing to fade away, which it kind of did. They responded primarily with meetings, including with protesting players. There were offers to spend more money on charitable causes, but people could not agree on that, either. There was talk that the N.F.L. might just keep players in the locker room during the anthem next season.

“That’s almost as bad as kneeling!” the president said on Twitter in November, his ire temporarily resurrected.

By then, though, the number of players kneeling or sitting for the anthem had shrunk back to early-season levels, a protest movement hard to sustain without a clear, vocal leader and goals. In places like Seattle and San Francisco, where the majority of protesters played, anthem rituals became routine, barely noticed. Even the television networks turned their cameras away, having moved on.

Now, at season’s end, the top sports story of 2017 already feels like something that has come and gone — or is going, at least, perhaps just smoldering until it flares again. Oppression, by any measure, hasn’t ended, or perhaps even slowed. Police brutality against people of color remains a major issue. Those were not things that would go away quickly, if ever.

So were the protests a success? Or does something else have to happen? How will history judge the N.F.L. season of 2017?

Sunday’s games will not be a memorable part of the story. Nine members of the Seahawks sat, as they had most of the season, while another knelt with a teammate’s hand on his shoulder. Four 49ers knelt. Six other teams had at least one player take part, the reports said, judging by their posture.

When the anthems and the television commercials ended, the games and cheers began, as if nothing had happened. The sideline posturing of 2017 came to a close. Fitting for football, it will take a long review to determine just what it was that we think we saw.

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