Freedom of speech is a democratic right which has been exercised and abused over the course of American history.
This right, while of broad application, is not a total absolute. There are exceptions to the rule that often delightfully coincide with God’s design for the rule of law, such as the prohibition of libel, obscenity and slander, and the freedom to right of privacy.
That being said, freedom of speech is one of the more controversial freedoms. As one of five freedoms expressed in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, it is something nearly every American knows by heart and can often quote verbatim, if felt necessary.
In recent months, this has led to protests of many kinds, not least those leading up to and following Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration.
But there has also been another, lesser known protest inviting attention. During the National Football League pre-season, in early August 2016, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, knelt in protest during the singing of the National Anthem.
Traditionally, the crowd and teams stand for the presenting of the American flag and singing of the anthem. It is a way of showing respect for the brave men and women who fought and died to secure the freedoms we have in the United States.
Mr Kaepernick, however, used this occasion to protest against recent racial oppression of African-Americans in the United States by kneeling during the anthem.
Kaepernick had previously sat on the benches during the first two pre-season games, but was encouraged by a former Green Beret, now football player, Nate Boyer to protest in this way. Kaepernick stated: ‘We were talking to [Boyer] about how can we get the message back on track and not take away from the military, not take away from fighting for our country, but keep the focus on what the issues really are.
‘And as we talked about it, we came up with taking a knee. Because there are issues that still need to be addressed, and it was also a way to show more respect to the men and women who fight for this country’ (Mark Sandritter, ‘A timeline of Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem and those who joined him’, SBNation.com, 6 November 2016).
Kaepernick was eventually spotted by the media on 26 August. His actions caused a huge uproar from the crowds and the social media.
When asked why he kneeled, Kaepernick told reporters: ‘I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.
‘This stand wasn’t for me. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice; people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.
‘It’s something that can unify this team. It’s something that can unify this country. If we have these real conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people; if we have these conversations, there’s a better understanding of where both sides are coming from.
‘I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening.
‘People are dying in vain, because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening. I’ve seen videos. I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they have fought for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right’ (Sandritter, Ibid.).
Since his initial protest, other players have joined him, with some even raising a fist in the manner of Black Power Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
Robert Quinn, defensive end for the St. Louis Rams, stated his reasons when asked why he raised his fist: ‘[I’m] Just standing up for my rights. Everyone knows the whole situation. Long story short, [Coach Jeff] Fisher asked us to stand. So I respect him enough to do that.
‘But at least to show awareness, raise my fist, show support out there that you have support throughout the league. I didn’t want to try to distract the team; just want to have my right of freedom’ (Nick Wagoner, ‘Colin Kaepernick continues anthem protest; other 49ers, Rams join’, ESPN, 13 September 2016).
Since Kaepernick’s protest, many other professional athletes have joined in taking a knee at the national anthem. With the media highlighting their every move, their actions have gone public and have had an incredible effect on athletes of all ages across the country.
While players and coaches have discussed these actions in the locker room and come to common ground on them, there are some fans and coaches who are less enthusiastic about the athletes stand for the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.
When Megan Rapinoe (see picture), a member of the Seattle FC and national women’s soccer team, knelt during the singing of the anthem, during a game in early September 2016, the owner of the team moved the time of the national anthem to a following game without telling the players, so that she wouldn’t kneel during the anthem (Steven Goff, ‘Megan Rapinoe doesn’t get a chance to kneel for national anthem. It was played with teams in locker room’, Washington Post, 7 September 2016). Other professional players have lost paid sponsorship from corporations after kneeling.
Some of the backlash has been less than hospitable. According to an article in The Telegraph, Baptist preacher Allen Joyne stated, ‘If you don’t want to stand for the national anthem, you can line up over there by the fence and let our military personnel take a few shots at you’ (Nick Allen, 18 September 2016). A few high school football players have received racial threats for joining Kaepernick’s kneeling protest.
The protest has even been manifested in Christian universities. In November 2016, six players from the men’s and women’s basketball teams at Covenant College (Chattanooga, TN) kneeled during the anthem.
Berto Dryden, a sophomore at the college, stated he was planning on kneeling even before the basketball season started. But before he could put his plans into action, the new basketball coach, Arte Culver, asked him about it and together they reached an agreement.
Four other players would join him in kneeling and the team agreed to lay their hands on the four players during the anthem. Dryden stated, ‘Rather than putting all attention on me and distract our main goal as a team, now we’re all on the same page. Even for people who aren’t kneeling, we’re all on the same page’. This action got a lot of flack from the college and Christian community at large.
Other students were quoted saying, ‘If you have family in the military, it’s difficult not to get angry. The heart behind it is great. It’s a noble cause. But even if they do it for completely the right reasons, I think what needs to be considered is how it’s perceived’.
Although the protest was never violent or abusive, the subject was brought to the Dean of Students. Sarah Ocando, associate dean stated: ‘We want to figure out how to protect student First Amendment rights. For us, it’s more about making sure students have the freedom to express things’ (Kristie Jaya, ‘Basketball players to kneel during anthem, The Bagpipe, 17 November 2016).
Sometime later, the college made an official statement on the subject. They said that, while they ask students to remain standing for prayer and the National Anthem, they would not bind any student’s conscience to what may be a cultural mandate and not a scriptural mandate. Furthermore, they would work with the students to help them understand the best way to engage in racial reconciliation.
This is by far the most gracious response I have seen regarding the racial ruckus that has embroiled the United States in recent years. While I am of the opinion that we should stand at the singing of the National Anthem, I applaud the students at Covenant College who sought to do so peacefully and graciously — and especially for the manner in which they talked to their coach and to others who had been in the military.
Let us pray that the day will soon come when racial bigotry and hate cease, and Jesus reigns in every heart.
Ben Wilkerson served with Sheffield Presbyterian Church, UK, and is a Christian writer residing in the USA