Why every NFL player, regardless of race, religion or background, should make a statement during the playing of the National Anthem this season.

By Andrew J. Pridgen

Football season is mere days away and whether we admit it or not, the sport, which is a barbaric game that exploits working poor families and minorities for the viewing pleasure of the rich—and ultimately leaves those who participate discarded and with brain damage, is our true national pastime, our religion that replaced… actual religion.

Though the NFL saw a dramatic dip in viewership numbers over the last 18 months, it is still the majority sport; fans are craven, bettors are prolific and entities like ESPN and Sports Illustrated (even this website) which have a tough time garnering ratings and clicks in the off-season suddenly are met with a windfall of viewers and readers.

It is not the sport of the future as much as it is a reminder of our feudal past, where men on the field are asked to sacrifice their bodies and their minds for the direct financial benefit of white plantation owners stuffed in three-piece suits staring down blankly like mini-Caesars from their boxes with an expressionless expression that explicitly says, “No, I am not entertained.”

In some respects, the sport is the best metaphor for America, or at least the America we’ve known since the ‘60s. It is perhaps the only time and place where we can come together, all races, backgrounds, religions and affiliations and cheer for something similar (or against a similar foe.) Where else are Americans able to truly put their hatred and stereotypes aside and embrace someone not based on the color of his skin but the color of his jersey? Football is perhaps—especially in this sickening moment when racism and extremism from white supremacists that has taken hold on the highest office in the land—the only stitch that’s holding our nation’s fabric together.

…Which is why we should laud the athletes who take to the gridiron and recognize their place as conduits for speaking out.

A year ago, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the National Anthem prior to a preseason game. His actions sent shockwaves through football-loving America. Kaepernick was left scorned, jerseys burned on social media, posts like “How could he? This is not America” punctuated with dozens of exclamation points underscored a naivete about how protesting peacefully is EXACTLY America.

The next game, he was joined by teammate Eric Reid kneeling next to him while Antoine Bethea and Eli Harold stood and raised their fists during the song.

Kaepernick’s initial reasoning was simple, he was reacting to race-fueled killings by police that had become so prevalent in the summer months leading up to the season. “I think it’s become so blatantly obvious that athletes and people in general have to react,” he said. “It’s not something that, with social media, there’s so many instances where it’s instantly to you and you see these things every day, day after day and that’s hard. For me, it was something that I couldn’t see another ‘hashtag Sandra Bland, hashtag Tamir Rice, hashtag Walter Scott, hashtag Eric Garner,’ the list goes on and on and on. At what point do we do something about it? At what point do we take a stand and as a people say this isn’t right? You have a badge, yes. You’re supposed to be protecting us, not murdering us, and that’s what the issue really is and we need to change that.”

The protest phenomenon spread throughout the NFL in time to the violence and the hateful rhetoric outside of it.

More and more players kneeled, locked arms, sat, turned their backs or raised fists during the anthem. The Kansas City Chiefs, all of them, stood together during the song and locked arms, as did the Seattle Seahawks. Miami Dolphins’ running back Arian Foster, linebacker Jelani Jenkins, receiver Kenny Stills and safety Michael Thomas all kneeled during the anthem. The Patriots’ Devin McCourty and Martellus Bennett stood for the anthem and raised their fists after it concluded. That pair, along with several dozen of their teammates and front office, also refused to attend a celebration in the Trump White House after winning the 2017 Super Bowl.

Bennett has been especially outspoken: “I’m challenging you,” he said, “…to be uncomfortable. Everybody’s in their comfort zone right now. Become uncomfortable, and go out and see what it’s like in society right now.”

On Saturday, after a Nazi/KKK rally in Charlottesville, Virginia left one peaceful protester dead after a Nazi marcher got in his car and rammed it into a group, the Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch sat on a bench by himself before Oakland’s preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals. The image of Lynch, solitary and pondering, is one that would surely have become emblematic were he not also enjoying a pre-game banana.

The players know what the rest of us do, the race-fueled violence has escalated and now occupies the highest office in the land. Donald Trump’s top aides include Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, whose nationalist theories and Breitbart dog whistles are directly responsible for the rise of white supremacist Richard Spencer. Sebastian Gorka, the deputy assistant to president, wore the honorary medal of Hungarian nationalist organization Vitezi Rend, an elite Nazi-linked order in that country. He is, in other words, the most uncloseted Nazi among them.

Add in Jeff Sessions, a known lifetime genteel southern-fried racist and civil rights suppressor—the kind of syrupy villain you find an any Grisham novel, as the attorney general and you have a cabal of men along with their various surrogates and aides who flaunt direct ties to white supremacist groups.

This means this is a White House that not only condones white supremacist behavior, but is controlled by it.

This has always been Trump’s agenda, to pull the fringe into the mainstream and to decry the actions of the mainstream (peaceful action/protest) itself. He said as much during his first campaign speech in front of actors when he called Mexicans “rapists and criminals” and then continued to foment the hate. This is not new. This is his singular platform. His goal and the goal of his advisors (Bannon, Miller, Gorka and their surrogates) is to create a Reichstag fire to consolidate power and deploy the use of military and paramilitary force on citizens who are reacting to such atrocities and then blame the peaceful protesters as the cause of the problem. He’s doing this NOW. Notice how Trump called Nazis “very fine people” Tuesday while condemning the actions of their detractors as the folks who “came violently attacking the other group…” this, of course, flies directly in the face of fact and logic. Isis-style tricks (driving into a crowd) were used by a white terrorist to kill a 32-year-old woman and injure 19 others (yet Trump refuses to call it terrorism)… also, there are preliminary reports that white supremacists had caches of weapons stored throughout the area for an even bigger conflict. Charlottesville was a test run, a “show of force”, according to white supremacist Richard Spencer. Read those words and heed them carefully. White supremacists were given a HUGE win from the highest office in the land this week and they have clearly been emboldened by Trump’s words and actions and they will continue to be more and more aggressive.

And while I don’t believe it’s an athlete’s responsibility to remind us that this is our country, not Trump’s vision of it, they have the nation’s most effective and popular platform with which to express their views.

An athlete’s expression of dissent should be supported and not taken for granted by the public either, as it does come at a cost. Kaepernick has not kneeled during the anthem this preseason because he is out of a job. Released by the 49ers in the offseason, the quarterback, who led his team to Super Bowl 47 and came up nine yards shy of one of the greatest comebacks in the game’s history, is now a free agent. Though his QB rating last season was an unspectacular 23rd in the league, he had no offensive line, no wide receivers and no real coaching staff to guide him. Even so, he still bested the numbers of Ryan Tannehill, Cam Newton, Carson Wentz, Blake Bortles, Eli Manning, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Case Keenum, all of whom still have jobs and with the exception of Tannehill (injured) and Fitzpatrick (backup), are also starters in the league.

It is important to remember, as we look for signs of resistance among our ranks of athletes this fall, that an authoritarian state’s agenda is to appropriate symbols, like flags and anthems, to their cause—to use beloved representations of who we were to lull a mass population into accepting the foulest of deeds and to commit acts of tyranny, suppression and eventually murder in the name of patriotism. It is the basest level of brainwashing and propaganda. And this is happening, with alarming flagrancy and in the worst ways imaginable, under the Trump regime.

This flag we are asked to stand up and salute and the song that accompanies it has been co-opted by irrationality, hate and division. Those who are hell-bent on tearing apart and ultimately destroying the nation are using nostalgia and traditional markers of what’s right and good and just against us.

Until the White House is restored as a place that houses men and women who preach tolerance, understanding, empathy, inclusion and compassion over greed, derision and sickening displays of theft, oppression and hate- and fear-mongering, then the flag and the anthem mean nothing. They are just fabric and a tune—not worth recognizing. Not worth saluting.

Andrew J. Pridgen helps run sister site Goner Party and is the author of the novella “Burgundy Upholstery Sky”. His first full-length novel will be released in November.