Leadership from the Arena

The one thing that will make American football continue to have relevance is when all players, on both teams, led by their quarterbacks, take the knee during the singing of our National Anthem. Taking the knee, a practice of soldiers honoring their fallen comrades, is an act of respect. Taking the knee during the Anthem means two things: first, it is an act of respect for the United States and its promise of liberty, justice, and equality. Second, it is a call for all Americans to honor those who have been brutalized when that promise is betrayed because of racial prejudice. Taking the knee, therefore, is a civic act to call on all Americans to fulfill our commitment to the principles we declare:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

The Preamble of the Constitution declares our republic as a project, as a commitment towards justice. It does not declare that we are perfect already. So what does it mean when political leaders and NFL employers suppress that call, that respectful request to keep struggling towards a more perfect union?

Their current policy is to insist that football is only a-political entertainment, only a distraction. In that case football has the same status as a circus, and the same grim origin of circuses: gladitorial death-sport. American football is already played in the same type of building that was originally developed by the Romans for the spectacle of blood sports. We also know–and should have known long ago–that American football involves human sacrifice. The painful consequences of playing are hidden from the (mostly white) fans because the neurological damage, depression, and suicides of players usually happen after they retire. This concealment parallels the fact that most white Americans never witness the unequal and humiliating treatment of young African-Americans by police, because we live in communities that are more racially segregated now than they were during the Jim Crow era. Mobile-phones make it much easier to capture video than the fortuitous taping of the beating of Rodney King in 1991. But there is no substitute for personally witnessing prejudicial abuse.

Opposition to the take-the-knee movement expresses a desire by most Americans to keep ourselves deliberately ignorant. Through this denial, we intentionally refuse to acknowledge widespread betrayal of American values, at exactly the moment when we publicly proclaim our commitment to those values. In this respect, Americans right now are behaving in a more brutal, more cruel way than the Romans in their coliseums, who were fully aware of the consequences of their thumbs-up or thumbs-down gesture. The Romans knew their entertainment meant pain and death for the slaves who entertained them.

Football players have known for decades that they are sacrificing their health in order to play. They know they will live shortened lives, in significant pain, as a direct consequence of playing. By taking the knee, they are not asking for rule-changes that would reduce their own long-term suffering. Instead, they are asking all Americans to fulfill the promise we affirm when we sing our national anthem and pledge allegiance to this republic. They are not even asking for us to outgrow our racist prejudices. They just ask us to treat citizens equally under the law, as we promise to do when we claim loyalty to our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence.

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