It all began with the simplest of gestures. At the beginning of the 2016 NFL season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided he would kneel during the national anthem to draw attention to racial inequality and police brutality. On Aug. 26, 2016, Kaepernick remained seated during the national anthem, and on Aug. 27, 2016, he told NFL Media, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” He also said,  “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 getting away with murder.” 

After consulting with former Green Beret and Seattle Seahawks punter Nate Boyer, Kaepernick and teammate Eric Reid instead chose kneeling as their method of protest, because it was respectful while still dissonant and jarring. In a Sept. 5 New York Times opinion piece, Reid wrote, “I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” Predictably, there was a media firestorm at the time; sportswriters and conservative media columnists harshly criticized Kaepernick, claiming he was politicizing the national anthem and disrespecting military veterans and the country at large. Fearful of what he could inspire, NFL owners collectively decided that Kaepernick was to be avoided at all costs despite his on-field skills. In particular, the Baltimore Ravens front office was in favor of signing Kaepernick, but owner Steve Bisciotti was strongly opposed to it. Bisciotti went as far as dredging an old tweet Kaepernick’s girlfriend Nessa Diab had sent out comparing him to a slave owner to ensure that the former 49ers quarterback remained a free agent, according to a Sept. 5 ABC News article. If the league’s owners were convinced that keeping Kaepernick sidelined would stop the protests, they’ve been proven dead wrong: Blackballing Kaepernick has turned him into a martyr. No.7 Kaepernick jerseys have become a civil rights symbol in their own right and Kaepernick has used the attention from the media firestorm around him to raise money for charity groups and promote his “Know Your Rights” sessions for children, according to a Sept. 7 New York Times article. Then, a certain president got involved. 

At a Sept. 20 rally for doomed Senate candidate Luther Strange, President Donald Trump went after the red meat his Alabaman crowd craved. Kaepernick provided a perfect opportunity from Trump.  His supporters love football nearly as much as they hate civil rights activism. According to a Sept. 23 article in the Guardian, Trump asked, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired!’” Suddenly, the protests were no longer Colin Kaepernick versus the establishment; they were the NFL versus Trump’s warped view of America. Trump was declaring cultural war, pitting viewers against the NFL’s young and heavily African-American players. The day after Trump’s remarks, nearly 200 players sat or kneeled during the anthem, and many others chose to lock arms as a sign of solidarity, according to a Sept. 24 USA Today article. 

Even Jerry Jones, the highly conservative Trump-supporting owner of the Dallas Cowboys, stood in solidarity with his players as they locked arms during the anthem. Unfortunately, the NFL itself completely missed the point of Kaepernick’s actions. Kaepernick was kneeling to specifically call attention to the issues faced by people of color in the United States. This wasn’t about Trump or any other single figure; it was about a racial structure predicated upon oppression and state violence. Badly misjudging the situation, the NFL tried to use the protests as a marketing tool, only to realize how many of the league’s fans agreed with the racist sentiments Trump was espousing. Every tired, lazy, anti-protest cliche — playing professional sports is a privilege;  they’re disrespecting veterans and the military; sports should stay apolitical — was allowed to come out of the woodwork. By attempting to turn a significant social movement into a mere marketing gimmick, the NFL ceded the conversation to Trump and allowed him to control the narrative. On Oct. 11, the New York Times reported that Trump voters’ view of the NFL went from about 20 percent unfavorable to 60 percent unfavorable nearly overnight, after Trump singled out the anthem protests. 

According to an Oct. 10 article in Sports Illustrated, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell attempted to do damage control by sending out a notice that all players were now strongly encouraged to stand for the anthem, but it was too little, too late. The NFL has put itself in no-man's land, distrusted both by conservatives furious over the players’ acts of defiance against the anthem and by leftists still angry at the league for its blackballing of Kaepernick.  As Italian poet Dante Alighieri wrote, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” The NFL has a choice of supporting Kaepernick and his fellow athletes in their fight against police brutality or allowing the system of racial oppression to continue as is by coming out in support of Trump’s culture war.