Just days after Seattle Reign midfielder Megan Rapinoe took a knee in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick’s protests against police brutality, one National Women’s Soccer League team went to extraordinary lengths to make sure it didn’t happen again.
According to the Associated Press, the Washington Spirit thwarted a potential protest by playing the national anthem before any of the teams were on the field.
“We decided to play the anthem in our stadium ahead of schedule rather than subject our fans and our friends to the disrespect we feel such an act would represent,” team officials said in an official statement. “We understand this may be seen as an extraordinary step, but believe it was the best option to avoid taking focus away from the game on such an important night for our franchise.”
Rapinoe made headlines during Labor Day weekend when she took a knee during the national anthem just before the Reign played the Chicago Red Stars on Sunday.
And while her goal has been to “keep the conversation going,” responses like those from the Washington Spirit exacerbate the controversy by foreclosing attempts to tackle the primary issue of racism in the first place.
Most of the backlash against Kaepernick-inspired protests misses the point
Like most of the backlash aimed at Kaepernick, the Spirit’s response to Rapinoe’s stance is based on a false equivalence.
So far, Kaepernick has been called ungrateful for protesting racism while rich. He’s been discredited for being a biracial adoptee who was raised in a white family. The Santa Clara Police Union threatened to stop offering security at 49ers games because they found Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality “insulting.” False rumors have been spread that Kaepernick only protested because his girlfriend is Muslim.
Kaepernick (and now Rapinoe) has been accused of dishonoring veterans and military members for exercising the First Amendment right that service members serve to protect. And, more simply, as Spirit management implied, there’s an insinuation that there’s no place for politics in sports.
None of this true. Islam isn’t synonymous with anti-Americanism. Neither wealth nor mixed ancestry has even been an absolute buffer against racism. And as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp noted, the US’s unique tradition of playing the national anthem during sporting events invites politics into the arena. In fact, the national anthem itself includes a third verse that glorifies killing slaves, Jon Schwarz pointed out for the Intercept.
Police brutality is unequivocally a major issue. As of early August, law enforcement officials have killed at least 2,075 people since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson in 2014. A disproportionately high percentage of those killed were black. And despite the high frequency with which officer-involved killings take place, police are rarely indicted for killing civilians, even as more video evidence of those killings becomes available.
The problem isn’t that Kaepernick and Rapinoe are factually wrong about racism or police brutality. Instead, what each new response shows is that it’s an uphill battle to call out racism in America.
Making racism a non-issue only proves Kaepernick’s point
The fact is that even if the Spirit says it played the anthem earlier than usual to focus on the game ahead, by not letting Rapinoe protest racial injustice the team was also making a statement that racism is a non-issue — which only proves Kaepernick’s point.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL.com after his initial protest. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Yet at the end of the second term of America’s first black president, there is an idea that institutional racism no longer exists. And as Greg Howard explained recently for the New York Times, people have gone so far as to redefine racism “to mean malice in one’s heart,” categorizing racism as a personal failing of a select group of people and not the product of a broken system.
Making racism seem like an individual problem helps people believe that racism only applies to bad people who didn’t get the memo that it’s not okay to be racist anymore. But by talking about racism in terms of systemic inequality, people like Kaepernick and Rapinoe are considered to be in the wrong for not sticking to the script.
Nothing about Kaepernick’s protest is new. Athletes like Muhammad Ali, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos, have used their platforms in the past to protest how African Americans are treated like second-class citizens. And in the age of the movement for black lives, a new generation of athletes have been calling out police brutality.
As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, argued for the Washington Post, people shouldn’t be worried about Kaepernick. Instead, they should be concerned about what resistance to Kaepernick’s statement, and the statements of his allies, says about America today.
“What should horrify Americans,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote, “is not Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated during the national anthem, but that nearly 50 years after Ali was banned from boxing for his stance and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequalities. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.”