The Problem with Kneeling Through the National Anthem

The number of ‘silent’ protests that involve kneeling during the National Anthem is increasing…but is the message behind the protests being lost?

A co-worker asked me what I thought about all of the people kneeling through playings of the National Anthem at sporting events. He then asked if I’d written about it on my blog.

I took the second question first: no, I haven’t really summarized my feelings on the subject here — at least not before now. The main reason for that is that, frankly, I’m tired of hearing about it.

But the more I thought about it, the reason I’m tired of hearing about it might just be worth discussing here.

How do I feel about people who kneel during the National Anthem?

It’s a complicated answer, because the question, though it looks simple, isn’t.

I see both sides of the original issue at the heart of the protest.

But I also see a lot more than those two sides. Because it’s now about more than that original issue.

It’s now about something totally different — what some might call a “pissing contest” — focused on something totally different than the original meaning of the original act.

As I understand it, the protests began as a way to send a message about racial injustice and police brutality. Those are concerns that need to be addressed in our society. They are legitimate problems — though people can endlessly debate the veracity of individual examples — for which we need to spend more time finding genuine solutions.

But we’re talking about sports figures who are themselves celebrities with large followings. There are other ways they could communicate that message than intentionally committing an act that is itself so polarizing.

Kneeling during the National Anthem isn’t going to make everyone stop and listen to your message: it’s the kind of act that’s going to make people angry because of the act itself, not the genuine problem that inspired the act.

Military supporters have taken predictable offense to the act just as they do any time anything to do with something patriotic being used in a means or protest. Members of the armed forces and their families complain that our servicemen and servicewomen — the real “heroes” in our society — have given their lives to protect the flag and the country being disrespected by the acts.

That’s true.

But that truth is a double-edged sword: their sacrifices for our freedom also gives us the right, if we choose, to take those very actions that end up disrespecting what they’ve fought for.

That’s the price we pay within our own society for freedom of speech: some of that speech may well not be the kind of speech we want to hear.

That, in and of itself, doesn’t make those points of view invalid or any less important. It’s too easy these days to forget that.

To claim to value freedom of speech but then demand others give theirs up is, at best, hypocritical. It’s too easy these days to forget that, too.

Then we have a president who isn’t exactly helping matters. Donald Trump delivered a speech on Sept. 23rd in which he suggested that NFL owners whose players disrespect the flag should say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired.”

He followed those already incendiary remarks with these tweets:

It shouldn’t have taken a rocket scientist to guess what might have happened as a result of this “tough talk.” Of course, it only made more athletes do more of the same.

How many people remember why the protest began at this point? It’s no longer about that message. Now it’s about who’ll show whom, and who gets the last word in a battle of wills over what’s acceptable.

It’s about the protest itself, not the reason for the protest.

We’re either worshipping the messengers or vilifying them. But the message itself is lost in the spectacle.

That’s why I have a problem with this kind of protest, whether you’re burning a flag or refusing to salute it: you’re taking attention away from a legitimate issue in favor of shock value, and if, by now, you can’t see that this kind of protest is all about shock value, then I just don’t understand how you can’t see it.

These star athletes have so many more people willing to hang on their every word than most of the rest of us ever will. There’s more than one way to reach that audience with a sincere message.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

And I suspect they all know that very well.

Do you think protests like kneeling during the National Anthem are effective with respect to the original message, or do you think they take on a life of their own?


  1. I think you’ve missed a few things you may want to consider. Armed forces personnel are also supporting the #takeaknee movement. In fact, kneeling is the proper way for AF personnel to salute a fallen officer; many personnel officers are also in full support of the movement. Some officers served overseas for multiple tours only to come back home to america and be called a n*gger.
    Second, Trump lost a major lawsuit years ago against the nfl and was awarded only $3 by the courts in that case. This situation allows trump to stir up controversy (grudge anyone?) & affect their ratings while at the same time condemning people’s constitutional rights to free speech. Furthermore, part of the reason the protest in this form has continued is because after 9-11 the government, in various forms, began spending millions of dollars promoting as “paid patriotism” with on field shows and also by paying for teams to enter the field/court before the national anthem instead of staying in the locker rooms until after. Threatening to fire someone for standing up for their beliefs in a non-violent way is just wrong….these are citizens not servicemen/women. Telling them to stand for the national anthem and just ‘stop this form of protest” is simply telling people of colour what they’ve been told for centuries now …which is essentially “be quiet & do as your told”.
    Lastly, people have been talking about social injustice for decades & it gets nowhere fast. The #TakeAKnee movement is actually making these issues a forefront in discussions without violence. Funny how the minute a campaign that pushes for fundamental rights and equality is immediately pushed down by the same white nationalists & elitists who attacked charlottesville & remain silent on brutality against people of colour, the same white nationalists who contort the meaning of the movement into something disrespectful & volatile. Maybe the people you should be looking down on are the ones who are the oppressors, trying to minimize & mutate #takeaknee into something its not. For decades people have been yelling about social injustice but it wasn’t until we fell silent j took a knee that people took notice.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Laura. I respect your points of view but must mention that you may have missed something in my post: the part where I said the reasons for the protest are legitimate and need to be addressed.

      My point in this post was not to look for some grudge Trump may have against the NFL or to suggest that anyone should “be quiet and do as they’re told.”

      My point was and is that this particular type of protest is going to be automatically dismissed by people who need to hear the message the most because of their perceived patriotic superiority. Someone who doesn’t get racial injustice (or inexplicably thinks there’s no such thing) may automatically shut down when they see what they interpret as the country as a whole being disrespected by having people kneel during the national anthem. They don’t even consider the message, they focus on the act.

      That’s the problem with this type of protest: the genuine message that NEEDS to be heard and NEEDS to be addressed is getting lost over a specific action. That should be given careful consideration.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.