In a recent episode of Hard Knocks, an HBO series that follows one team a year through the rigors of an NFL training camp, the Los Angeles Rams head coach Jeff Fisher called a team-wide meeting that covered the protocol for the national anthem. Fisher gravely and emphatically explained the rules to the roughly 60 assembled men. Helmets belong under the left arm, he declared, and feet on the white of the sideline. “It’s a respect thing,” he said. “It’s a self-respect thing, it’s respect for your teammates, it’s respect for this game, and it’s respect for this country.” Fisher proceeded to show the group footage of a past Rams team following the procedures and, turning to face the screen himself in the silence of the room, said, “That’s how you start a game.”
I thought of the scene recently when Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, neglected to stand while the national anthem was played before the team’s preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. In the hours and days that followed, Kaepernick cited police violence against people of color as his reason. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Because he’s an NFL player, Kaepernick’s statement resonates in a distinct way. America’s most popular sports league is also its most visibly patriotic, a trait discernible in everything from pregame fighter-jet flyovers to field-sized flags to coaches’ instructions about the anthem during behind-the-scenes shows. It doesn’t require an extreme amount of cynicism or research to note that this is as much about industry acumen as love of country—the league has a brand, and the stars and stripes are a part of it—but like all branding, it works best when it is assumed as a matter of course. With his means of protest, then, Kaepernick is not only using his platform as an athlete to raise awareness about ongoing tragedies. He’s also, whether by design or not, questioning the NFL’s insistent but narrow definition of patriotism, shining a harsh light on its red-white-and-blue wallpaper.
When asked about Kaepernick’s actions, his ex-teammate and now-Minnesota Viking Alex Boone, whose brother served as a Marine, spoke passionately. “That flag obviously gives him the right to do whatever he wants. I understand it. At the same time, you should have some fucking respect for people who served, especially people that lost their life to protect our freedom.”
The response rests on certain assumptions. The anthem is, in Boone’s presentation, a means of honoring America’s military—not the country’s ideological foundation or its cultural or political history—and so Kaepernick is offending the military. Contrast this understanding with, say, that of the national anthems played for the victors at the Olympics. American medalists tend to report on the experience of hearing the anthem played as a prideful and reminiscent one that brings up visions of parents, hometowns, and training partners and coaches along the way. It is celebratory, not supplicant, patriotism. Even when the gymnast Gabby Douglas found herself in an overblown controversy concerning her posture during an anthem in the Rio Olympics—no hand over her heart—the troops were rarely invoked. Her offense was thought to be a broader lack of appreciation, not a specific affront to soldiers.
Boone’s criticism of Kaepernick surely stemmed in part from his brother’s time serving, but it also reflected his league’s conception of national pride. The armed forces figure heavily in the NFL’s weekly presentations. The flyovers are joined by salutes to servicemen and women in the crowd, reunions between returning soldiers and their families, televised cutaways to units stationed overseas enjoying satellite feeds of the games, and recruitment ads during commercial breaks.
On the one hand, this partnership seems natural. Football is America’s most militaristic sport, a game of armored land acquisition whose participants are drilled to suppress their own fear and carry out strategy. Players get hurt with astonishing frequency. Coaches command from the safety of the sidelines. It’s all as close as adults come to playing war, so it fits that the game should revere those who do the real thing.
But the connection is also calculated. The most obvious motive may be financial—those midfield scenes of a returning father surprising his wife and child have sometimes involved dollar figures paid to the league—but the deeper purpose relates to public image. With each passing season, the NFL runs into more and more bad press, much of it related to the indisputable health risks involved in playing football. By invoking the military, the league invites a flattering comparison, implying that whatever its faults, the sport teaches and portrays camaraderie and self-sacrifice, pure American grit. The United States would be unsafe without its soldiers, the tableau of waving flags and timed applause suggests, and the American spirit would be incomplete without its football. The game’s particulars can be questioned but its necessity cannot; audiences and advertisers get the reassurance they need.
Kaepernick’s message matters more than the medium in which it was delivered, but the medium may well be what the NFL pays attention to most. On Monday, another player, the Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Myke Tavarres, announced that he too would sit down during the playing of the anthem, his reasoning the same as Kaepernick’s, though he later changed his mind. A full-on trend seems unlikely, given the lack of job security for the average football player and the strictness of the coaches and executives in charge of teams, but even a minor scuff to the league’s patriotic sheen may prove significant. The NFL is a multi-billion dollar enterprise, and much of its profitability relies on its taking none but the safest of stands, such as supporting those who sacrifice for their country.
A couple days after sitting for the anthem, Kaepernick addressed reporters and said his actions aren’t intended to insult the military. “I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country,” he said. “And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening.” Kaepernick voiced the mixed feelings many Americans have, simultaneously proud and upset, respectful and disgusted. His is a complicated patriotism. For his employer, one that trades in a more straightforward version, that alone is a problem.