“Take a knee fellas.” That’s what Jerry Buterakos my JV basketball coach back in Flint, Michigan used to say. That was his way of getting our attention and letting us know he was going to speak and we were going to listen. Coach B knew something we didn’t. He knew that when you got a group of young men on bended knee they were in a physical position to listen that would (for some of them anyway) put them in a mental position to actually hear what was said.
The last few years in the NFL the most talked about, lightning-rod quarterbacks have both been “take-a-knee” type guys. The first was Tim Tebow, who made it famous when his end zone celebration was not a spike or a dance, but a very public, prominent, knee. For Tebow it was a statement about what he believed. It would prove to be wildly politically incorrect and unpopular with one crowd and had him heralded as hero by another. Tebow performed fairly well in the NFL by most standards, but soon found himself with no job offers.
Then came Colin Kaepernick. More accomplished than Tebow for sure, but with less impressive statistical numbers overall, Kaepernick took a knee for what he believed in and it cost him dearly. He kneeled, he said, for people of color and inequity. Others saw him as unpatriotic and even un-American. It would prove to be wildly politically incorrect and unpopular with one crowd and find him heralded as hero by another. Colin Kaepernick remains without a team.
I joked with friends recently that if I were granted control over some struggling NFL team I know just what I'd do. I’d immediately offer contracts to BOTH Kaepernick and Tebow. Then I’d run a crazy offensive scheme. I’d play Tebow and Kaepernick on alternate downs. Each of them running in plays. Splitting playing time evenly every game.
Would we win doing this? Of course not. But even if we lost every game, big deal…if you are the Browns, Jaguars, Jets (sorry fans of those three) you are going to lose anyway. Win or lose we’d steal the spotlight of the NFL weekly narrative. And for sure on every other play we’d have half of America pulling for us! Marginalized, minority fans, Democrats, people of color, pulling for Kaepernick every first and third downs and evangelical, white, Republican fans pulling for Tebow on second and fourth. (Did I mention we’d never punt? Never.)
I actually got this obviously brilliant brainstorm in a strange way. I was listening (again) to one of my favorite speeches of all time. David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon College. It’s a classic, if you have not read it, quit reading my gobbledy gook and read it. It will be time better spent. It is brilliant. It is powerful. It is insightful.
At one point near the end Wallace says this: “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship….. If you worship money and things-if they are where you tap real meaning in life-then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.
When Wallace uses the word worship he defines it as deciding what is capital-T true. Deciding what has meaning and what does not. As I listened to Wallace again in light of current events, my mind went to kneeling as the universal sign of worship. We kneel to the more important. To the capital-T true. It is a sign of humility. We do it when we propose marriage. We even bend and bow in Yoga and say “ohm”… the Hindu word for God. Yoga is, in essence, a form of worship. Removing oneself from the center. Acknowledging, with hopefully more awareness than my JV basketball team, that our physical posture can and will remind our brains that there are things bigger than our tiny skull-sized kingdoms.
I for one do not believe that Colin Kaepernick has himself at the center of his kneeling kick. If he does, he's a terrible businessman. Hate him or love him, we should be kind enough in our spirits to lay off Colin and admit that he’s a young man with some guts who seems to really believe in what he is “standing for” with his kneeling. Same for Tebow. People hate the guy with a passion… but I tend to think his kneeling is genuine. That does not mean either or both of them are not deluded or misguided. But it does mean they both have courage.
Which leads us back to the reason David Foster Wallace felt compelled to say what he did to Kenyon College graduates back in 2005. We live in a culture that is not about humbly removing oneself and exalting something other as greater than ourselves. We’d rather see guys like Kaepernick and Tebow beat their chests and roar out to the sky with the ultimate exclamation of “ME, ME, ME! Look what I just did!” We’d rather see them worship themselves, than have a QB who takes a knee.
The NFL knows that taking a knee won't make them money in a culture than expects and heralds worship of self. As Wallace said in the closing paragraphs of his speech:
“the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.”
Wallace was pretty heavy-handed there in this critique of me and you, himself and our culture. He was indeed a depressed guy who took his own life not long after that beautiful, poetic speech. But his warnings and pleading with the Kenyon class of 2005 are worth a take-a-knee listen. Worth a hearing. Indeed we all worship something. Odd to find so many so angry at two young men intent on that being something larger than themselves.
The fact remains that unless I somehow end up in charge of a team and get to execute my alternate play scheme, guys like Tebow and Kaepernick have no chance in today’s NFL. Maybe because they are not good enough. But I’d say more so because they have chosen to take a knee regardless of whether it makes someone else a bunch of money. We are tempted to see them as representative of opposite sides in the culture wars, but I’d suggest they are more alike than different. Each one seems to make half of America really mad. That’s bad for business. No wonder they are unemployed. Regardless of which of these two kneelers we hate and which we love, surely somewhere in our heart of hearts our American human family still realizes that taking a humble knee for what you believe to be capital-T true makes you a star…whether they ban you from the field or not.
Mark Moore is co-founder of Mana Nutrition in Fitzgerald, GA. He thinks getting malnourished kids proper nourishment is a capital-T true thing to do.