Hall of Fame Coach Tony Dungy sat down last week with Sports Pulse (USA Today) to discuss the ongoing controversy with NFL players opting to kneel during the the U.S. National Anthem. As always, Coach Dungy’s remarks were measured and well-reasoned, as expected from an NFL coach of his caliber. I think he makes some very good and thoughtful points about the effectiveness of the protests, especially as we head into the third year of this controversy.
Now I don’t want to get into the motivation of the protest itself. I certainly recognize that among the players, and certainly a not insignificant segment of our country, there is concern about racial inequality and police brutality. Those are valid concerns about our society. And while reasonable people can disagree on the the scope of the problem, at the very least we all have to recognize that there is a perception of a problem, and as long as that perception remains, it’s a reality that will need to be addressed. But are the players helping to address this problem? Are their tactics effective? Coach Dungy doesn’t seem to think so, and I agree with him and have from the very start.
Before I lay out my case for why I think the kneeling in this context is not an effective course of action, let me state a few things up front. I do not question the motivation or patriotism of Colin Kaepernick or any of the NFL players who have chosen to engage in these protests. I believe their intentions come from a sincere sense of solidarity. Additionally, outside of there being formal policy by the NFL barring such protests (which has not been the case until now), I take no issue in their choice to kneel during the Anthem. Freedom of speech is like that. You have to support it even if you disagree with it, in order to protect it for when you might need it. And yes, I am aware that there are established limits on speech in terms of inciting violence, but we aren’t talking about that. We also aren’t talking about things like libel or slander. We are talking about straight political speech. That being said, the NFL has every right to put limits on that when players are wearing their uniforms during NFL events. They certainly have a right to not have their name associated with political speech that they don’t necessarily sanction.
I do not question the motivation or patriotism of Colin Kaepernick or any of the NFL players who have chose to engage in these protests. I believe their intentions come from a sincere sense of solidarity.
But even with being sincere and within the bounds of free speech, this attempt at staging a protest was lost right from the start. As Coach Dungy said, “…the best way is not three minutes before the national anthem.” In other words, this is not how you capture an audience to bring attention to what you see as a significant societal ill. Not only is the time is too short, but the attention of the fans is focused on something much different. They are prepping for a game on Sunday afternoon, ostensibly free in their minds from the political and social drama that is the “rest of the week”. Now again, we can argue as to whether that is a realistic expectation, but fact remains in my mind that it is an expectation, and even the players are going to be hard pressed to overcome it.
Additionally, Colin Kaepernick’s initial method of protest (sitting on the bench) came across to most as just being plain disrespectful. I even saw another NFL player who was part of the protest early take that time to conduct additional stretching exercises while sitting down on the field. Not exactly symbolic actions meant to bring attention to a cause. No, it came across as just not caring about anything but themselves. I’m not saying that was the case, but again it was the perception, and that perception took root. Now admittedly, at the recommendation of a military veteran, Kaepernick changed his posture to kneeling as a means to shake the look of disrespect. That was a good recommendation and smart of Kaepernick to take on board. But at that point, it was too late in my opinion. The tone of his initial actions had set in and he was not going to get a chance at a reboot.
This leads me to my third and perhaps most important point. Mr. Kaepernick, in choosing to protest in this manner, has made the issue about what the Flag symbolizes rather than the shortcomings of the American society. He unintentionally made his protest about the Flag instead of about his cause. So for many who think of the flag as the cloth that drapes the casket of a American soldier, the intent of Mr. Kaepernick is lost immediately. His message is lost. And I think the experience of the last two years has shown that to be the case. The protest has not created a sense of action and awareness among the American people. It’s simply made more clear existing fault lines, and I see no reason that it is going to change.
And that is where Coach Dungy is coming from, too, in his recommendation to the players–and perhaps more to the head coaches out there who are leading these men. When asked about how he would handle players wanting to kneel as a means of raising awareness and challenging people in their comfort zone, Dungy remarked, “Good, we can make people uncomfortable during the press conference. You want to raise awareness, I’m going to give you a much bigger platform. Instead of just 65,000 people at the stadium, I’m going to give you access to millions of people, and it’ll be re-run and you’ll be able to articulate exactly what your point is. I think most guys would say that is a better way.” And it would be a better way: a bigger audience for certain and a chance to actually articulate their concerns free from misconceptions and in a manner that would probably generate more introspection with the fans.
We can’t fix society and all of its problems unless we first start to fix ourselves from within.
But Dungy went on further to discuss how as head coach he would challenge and call on his men to get involved in their local communities and make a difference there. And ultimately, that is where men like this will have the greatest impact; hands-on involvement in the very communities they represent on the field. But in agreeing with Coach Dungy on all of this, I do believe there is a way that the players can actually seize upon the attention that kneeling has brought and channel it into something that would be unifying with the fans and vast majority of Americans in general. And that is by borrowing from the playbook of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of the great things about Dr. King was that, by directly pointing out the many injustices within our land at the time, he always seemed to find a place to remind the Nation that it was not living up to the very qualities that were a part or our founding: things that we all openly value such as “life, liberty and pursuit of justice.” He confronted us with our failures to live up to those ideals and challenged us to do better. And of course, his encouragement always invoked the higher calling of God because, to Dr. King, “the end of life is not to be happy, nor to achieve pleasure and avoid pain, but to do the will of God, come what may.”
But do we pursue the will of God in our lives? This is clearly a rhetorical question given life experience and the state of things around us all. I certainly don’t always make the choice that coincides with God’s will, and I am confident that others reading this would confess the same about themselves. But I would submit, that is the starting place for any real change we are to make in this world. We have to change ourselves before we can affect the rest of society. It’s quite the vogue thing to be a so-called “Social Justice Warrior” nowadays and in touch with all of the various causes out in the world. But what we are really in need of are more “Internal Justice Warriors,” or those committed to making ourselves right and holy within so that we may do the will of God and in doing so affect the rest of society. We can’t fix society and all of its problems unless we first start to fix ourselves from within. And that is where I would like to challenges the NFL players. Take a knee this season and encourage all of us to join you in doing so, but let’s further bow our heads during the National Anthem and let us recite this prayer together from the hand of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:
“O God, make us willing to do your will, come what may. Increase the number of persons of good will and moral sensitivity. Give us renewed confidence in nonviolence and the way of love as taught by Christ. Amen.”
Pray it to make us more holy inside. Pray it that we may do the will of God. Pray it that as a society we work to tackle the conditions in our our communities that foster poor social situations that promote violence. Pray it that we learn to better understand each other no matter what: where we live, come from, or financial well-being. Pray it for America. Pray it for the World. Pray it for us, and pray it together. Take a knee, pray it, and look higher for inspiration from above.