Taking A Knee: How To Squander A Teaching Moment

The October 2 edition of the New York Times carried a David Leonhardt column entitled “Kneeling Versus Winning” in which he praises the many National Football League players who have been kneeling during the national anthem. His point is that it will take a lot more than this symbolic gesture to win their “political battle with President Trump” and to encourage them to do so.   

But what is their battle about? Like many observers, Leonhardt seems to think he knows the answer to this question, but I for one do not ― and the protests do little to inform me. Indeed, they do the very opposite by failing to communicate what it is they are protesting. Many fans will wonder what players whose average salary in 2011 was $1.9 million (a median of $770,000), according to Forbes, have to protest about. Well, they are Americans and about 70 percent of them are black, so they might plausibly be complaining about any of a number of conditions, behaviors, or policies – racism, police brutality against blacks, Trump’s innumerable outrageous statements and actions, the many disadvantages of being black in America, the fact that only a quarter of NFL head coaches are black, the NFL’s handling of concussions, and many others. But we, the audience, have no way of knowing which things they are protesting, so that we have no way of focusing our attention on the issue(s) that they might be raising ― even though we might well want to support them if we knew. (At least I might!)

I am not the only one who is confused. People’s feelings about the protests depend on what they think the protests are about, but they do not agree on what they are about, much less how they feel about the protests. On October 9, FiveThirtyEight reported that “a recent CBS/YouGov poll of over 1,300 respondents asked people — regardless of whether they agreed with the protests — what NFL players were trying to do by kneeling during the national anthem.  A large majority (73 percent) of respondents said the players were trying to call attention to racism, and 69 percent said players were calling attention to police violence. But 40 percent said the protests were trying to disrespect the flag, while 33 percent said the goal was to disrespect the military. Not surprisingly, the poll found that people’s attitudes toward players taking a knee differ a great deal when they are told that the protests are about race, patriotism, or free speech (the only three subjects that the pollsters mentioned).

President Trump has unwittingly confirmed and increased this confusion by insisting (as usual, without any evidence) that the kneeling (and team executives’ complicity) is about still other things: rejecting the flag, the military, and the country. (The Supreme Court, of course, held almost 30 years ago that even flag-burning, which is far more provocative than kneeling, is constitutionally protected expression, but my point is about muddied message, not legality).

Because the protests are altogether undifferentiated, unfocused, and uncommunicative (except in the grossest sense) concerning their content and targets, they are literally meaningless. Although they are potentially powerful movers of public opinion, their substantive content is so opaque that they do nothing to advance public dialogue and understanding. The civil rights crusaders whom Leonhardt invokes took pains to identify the particular injustices that they were fighting ― segregated lunch counters, schools, churches, neighborhoods, jobs and the like – and the bigoted Americans and illegitimate laws institutions that supported these injustices. This clarity, which is utterly absent when players silently take a knee, made it possible for the earlier civil rights protesters to fashion and sell specific remedies.   

Because so many Americans watch the NFL (more than 110 million tuned in for each recent Super Bowl), the protesters have a far larger audience than any earlier group of protesters did. This is a magnificent teaching opportunity ― but so far, they have squandered it.

Peter H. Schuck, an emeritus professor at Yale Law School, is the author most recently of One Nation Undecided: Clear Thinking About Five Hard Issues That Divide Us (Princeton U.P., 2017).