In August of 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers at the time, sat on the bench while the national anthem played for a preseason game. In a statement to the NFL he explained his decision,
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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.”
Kaepernick’s public stand against oppression of people of color and police violence catalyzed a movement, eliciting more protests in football and other sports. Players from the Ravens, Jaguars, Broncos, Eagles, Packers, Dolphins, and Chargers began to kneel or lock arms during the national anthem as a silent protest. The movement soon expanded to coaches, cheerleaders, NBA players, women’s national soccer players, and even high schools throughout the country.
Since then, the protests have provoked both echoes of support and cries of anger. With NFL broadcasting reaching over 20 million Americans, there were many people who felt they had something to say about the protests. While then-president Barack Obama stood to defend Kaepernick and his right to express his opinion, the attitude changed once Donald Trump came into office. President Trump has chosen to express his disapproval of the movement via Twitter.
In August, Trump suggested that Kaepernick, “Find a country that works better for him.” Trump then called for a firing of any player that chose to kneel during the national anthem saying in a tweet that, “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our country, flag, and national anthem. NFL must respect this!” Trump continued his assailing of the protests, referring to the players that kneeled as “sons of bitches” in a rally speech.
What was Kaepernick doing amid the chaos that ensued from his kneeling? In September of 2016, Kaepernick announced he would donate $1 million to various charities that assist minority communities facing oppression or inequality, such as Assata’s Daughters and Helping Oppressed Mothers Endure. While President Trump called him a “son of a bitch,” Kaepernick enacted his silent protest to mobilize change.
Nashville and Vanderbilt are now seeing these protests in their own community. Cheerleaders at Nashville’s Hillsboro High School knelt during the national anthem in September of 2016. More recently, on October 29th, approximately half of the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team knelt during the national anthem and, not long after, Vanderbilt cheerleaders began to kneel before games. The Vanderbilt women’s basketball team received a host of “boo’s” from the crowd after kneeling, yet were persistent in their protesting. The cheerleaders valiantly followed suit despite the condemnation at the women’s basketball game.
The Vanderbilt cheerleading team began kneeling on November 4th at the season’s Western Kentucky game. Approximately 7 of the 21-person squad knelt during the anthem. Junior squad member, Bailey Lowe, stated that her inspiration to kneel came when the image of a Georgia Tech cheerleader kneeling went viral. Another team member told VPR that she knew more needed to be done once the women’s basketball team was heckled.
Cheerleading senior, Candace Grisham, when asked what kneeling represented to her she eloquently explained,
“I think people should have knelt a long time ago. Both of my parents served in the military. My dad served in two tours in Afghanistan; when I kneel I think about all the blacks who’ve served in the military or in any capacity in the United States. And for so long they came back to worse conditions than they were living in when they were deployed. They always stood for a country that never stood for them. We should no longer stand for a country that doesn’t stand for us either.”
Vanderbilt athletics has been supportive of athletes taking a knee during the anthem, but encourage the athletes to do more with their platform and their desire for change. Similar to Kaepernick, all of the Vanderbilt athletes partaking in the protest hope to put more actions behind their symbolic act, knowing that a person can’t change the world from their knee but that it’s a place to start.
Although the Vanderbilt football team isn’t on the field during the national anthem, some of the players still had thoughts to share on the issue. A sophomore Vanderbilt cornerback stated, “Everyone has their own opinion and I feel like the people that do take a knee should be interviewed instead of being judged without hearing their why first.” A fellow sophomore player, Jamauri Wakefield, said, “I do to some degree identify and support the players in both NCAA and NFL for taking a knee.”
While Vanderbilt football players were open to speaking their mind regarding kneeling, Vanderbilt women’s basketball players were prohibited from giving statements on the matter, directing questions to their media contact Jessica Poole, who failed to respond to VPR’s emails regarding the kneeling.
The presence of kneeling on Vanderbilt’s campus, the silence of the women’s basketball team, and the crowd’s response to the players’ kneeling may now speak to larger issues of race relations at the university. At a time when white supremacy fliers were posted on campus just weeks ago, and the women’s basketball has been ushered into required silence, the university must put in extra work to continue to foster a diverse and inclusive community.
When asked if her kneeling spoke to larger issues of race at Vanderbilt that needed to be addressed, Grisham stated that there was no overt racism at the university, but rather that “[African Americans] experience strife everyday just because [they’re] black. It’s not necessarily attributed to this institution.” Lowe echoed her sentiments when she said, “There are issues of race anywhere that you go, it’s just the extent to which they’re visible.” Both cheerleaders agreed that their own personal choice to kneel spoke more to the state of the country than to the university.
The main opposing voice of kneeling, President Trump, seems to be lacking patriotism of his own. In 2015, Trump attacked Senator John McCain’s military career by saying, “He’s not a war hero…I like people who weren’t captured.” More recently, in October of this year, Trump continued his assault on gold star families when he called the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson and told her her husband “knew what he signed up for.”
In 2016, prior to his nomination, President Trump affronted a Muslim family who had spoken against Trump during the Democratic National Convention. The family’s son had been killed during his time as a soldier. Trump, in a later interview, said the father spoke at the convention because the mother had not been “allowed” to herself, insulting the mother during her time of grieving and continuing his barrage on American Muslims.
The degrading of the military service of a lifetime public servant like John McCain, being brash and insensitive to a grieving wife, and scorning a Gold Star family based on their religion is far more unpatriotic than kneeling during the national anthem.
In 2017 there have been nearly 1,000 shootings by police, with black males representing an alarming proportion of this number. The names of Eric Garner and Michael Brown are widely known, but cases such as these happen at an alarmingly higher rate than many are aware of. In 2015, Samuel Dubose was shot and killed after being pulled over for a traffic stop. He was unarmed. On February 25th, 58 year old Gregory Gunn was tased 3 times, beaten, and shot 5 times by a police officer: unarmed and in his own home. Perhaps if these cases were more visible and spoken of, athletes and those with a platform would not have to kneel during the anthem to bring attention to these transgressions.
On September 4th, 2016, 35 veterans released an open letter in support of Kaepernick, writing, “Far from disrespecting our troops, there is no finer form of appreciation for our sacrifice than for Americans to enthusiastically exercise their freedom of speech.” These veterans’ words echo those of JFK who said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
In America’s free and open society, no person has the right to tell another that they cannot protest peacefully. This is the exact freedom that U.S. soldiers fight bravely to defend. Those denying this basic right to Colin Kaepernick or any other athlete that chooses to peacefully protest disrespects the military and flag they claim to be protecting.
When speaking about the issue of kneeling, it is important to remember that the flag and country many think are being disrespected were built upon ideals of life and liberty. Those who kneel believe that the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness they are promised is being compromised by egregious levels of systemic racial injustice in the United States.
The voices of the women’s basketball team should be amplified for the campus to hear, not suspiciously silenced. There should be increased attention on the university’s cheer team members who are choosing to kneel and the booing that the basketball team endured should be muffled by Vanderbilt’s resounding voices of support. Vanderbilt University and its student body must unite to fight inequality and oppression and begin to walk alongside one another, hand in hand, kneeling or standing.