Michael Bennett made an observation this week that seems fairly incontrovertible: the cause of current black NFL players protesting during the national anthem would be helped if a white player joined in. Here are his comments on SportsCenter, from Wednesday, August 16:
Then, on Thursday night, Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles – a longtime supporter of Colin Kaepernick and other protesting players – made a point of putting his arm around Malcolm Jenkins as the anthem played before their preseason game. (Update: Bennett’s teammate Justin Britt stood next to him while he sat on the bench during Friday night’s national anthem.)
It did get a lot of attention, and undoubtedly opened some eyes, furthering Bennett’s point.
But that isn’t enough. The NFL needs a prominent white player to raise a fist or sit on the bench or kneel during the anthem. Long has said in the past that while he respects others – like Jenkins – who protest, he won’t participate because of his respect for the anthem. That being said, he’s still the most likely in my mind to take the next step and go full protest. His opinions about the anthem may not change, but circumstances certainly have.
Still, everyone already knows where Long stands on this issue, and he isn’t a premier player anymore. Someone more prominent, more unexpected, with a bigger platform, would be ideal. Imagine if Philip Rivers knelt for the anthem before Week 1 and then said this at the post-game press conference:
“Anyone who knows me knows I love the Stars and Stripes as much as anyone. I’m a patriot, through and through. But as someone who knows history, I know that we have alway used protest in this country as a way to spur our fellow citizens to do the right thing. And as a father of seven kids and a Christian, I can’t sit back and ignore what’s going on. I want them to grow up in a better, more inclusive society, and the best way I know right now to express my solidarity with my fellow players and call for change in the way African-Americans are treated, and to call attention to that cause, is to sit. So that is what I’m going to do. Gold bless the USA.”
The scene I just described certainly belongs on fantasy isle, because it will never happen, but I can’t help imagining the impact. How awesome would that be? As an outspoken southern, rich, white Christian with a Hall-of-Fame résumé and an unshakable hold on the starting QB job in LA, Rivers would be a perfect messenger (as would others, like Tom Brady and JJ Watt…or the most unrealistic of all and my personal favorite: every single white guy on the Patriots IN UNISON).
The NFL is such a buttoned-up, non-individualistic, conservative place, though, that none of these guys would ever dream of doing such a thing. Which is sad; no matter our differences on issues political, economic, or cultural, we should all be able to come together and agree that:
A) Black people have (more than) a right to be less than enthralled with their country, and just as importantly, the symbols that represent that country, because of the way they have been treated for the last 400+ years, and B) kneeling during the national anthem is a totally legitimate form of protest and has nothing to do with harming the country or being a traitor.
Thousands and thousands of white people outside of the NFL agree, and have expressed their opinions by marching and protesting alongside people from more marginalized groups. One of them was Heather Heyer. Heather was a paralegal from Virginia with a finely tuned sense for discrimination. That sense led her to Charlottesville last Saturday, where she spent her free time counter-protesting a group of Neo-Nazis, KKK members, and so-called “white nationalists.”
When a gutless coward sped his car careening down the street, Heyer paid with her life.
The cost for a well-established white NFL star would be a hell of a lot less than that.
Is it really too much to ask?