Mar 5, 2021 | OPINION | By Emma McDermott | Illustration by Jubilee Rivera-Hernandez

Before September of 2016, the gesture of kneeling was given scant consideration and almost never debated among most of the American public. Images that used to come to mind were athletes in arenas pausing and kneeling for an injured player or lovers proposing marriage. Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel for the Star Spangled Banner at National Football League games, however, made the pose one of the most divisive symbols in American culture.

The first time Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem was in a preseason game on Aug. 14, 2016, for which he was not dressed. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback remained seated on the bench for this first preseason game and for the second, which took place just six days later on Aug. 20. Since he was not in uniform, Kaepernick’s gesture went largely unnoticed; it wasn’t until the third preseason game, played on Aug. 26, that Kaepernick’s decision to sit for the duration of the anthem gained widespread attention and intense criticism.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” said Kaepernick, responding to media questioning the decision. “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 and getting away with murder. If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”

Kaepernick was referencing issues of police brutality that came to the fore in the summer of 2016 in addition to the long history of racism and racial discrimination in the U.S.

After speaking with former Green Beret and NFL player Nate Boyer, however, Kaepernick switched to kneeling as opposed to sitting during the National Anthem.

“We sort of came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates,” Boyer explained. “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect.”

Despite Kaepernick’s continued defense against accusations that he was trying to disrespect the American flag, national anthem, and military personnel, debates about the respectfulness of this act raged on. In fact, Kaepernick explicitly stated, “Once again, I’m not anti-American. I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.”

Anger towards Kaepernick and his kneeling gesture has always been difficult for me to understand. I think the most valid criticisms of Kaepernick is that his actions are unpatriotic, and even that neglects Kaepernick’s continued assertion that disrespect was neither the intention nor the historical symbolism of the kneeling pose.

Any athlete that has ever played in a competition, from youth to professional sports, knows that kneeling is a sign of respect. It is also a moment to pause, take a breath, and respect one’s fellow competitor as more than an opposing athlete.

Similarly, it is an American norm that one partner gets down on one knee to ask the other partner for their hand in marriage. There is intended symbolism in this act, too: “The gesture of getting down on one knee while proposing has been connected to prayer, submission, deference, and respect, among other things” (BRIDES).

This same sentiment can be seen, too, in occasions of knighting. Anytime someone is knighted, they are required to kneel before the officiant as a sign of respect.

So, what I have trouble with is this: kneeling has historically been a sign of respect, and Colin Kaepernick made it clear that he intended no disrespect. I believe him. I take him at his word. He made an effort to improve and nurture something broken and injured while constantly insisting his act was one of love and respect. He cared about something more important than himself, his career, and the game of football. Moreover, in the process of his protest, Kaepernick generated much-needed attention about police brutality in the best way he could think of.

Kaepernick’s kneeling acknowledged the continued suffering of marginalized populations in the U.S. He also consciously switched from sitting on the bench to kneeling during the anthem to ensure that he respected American soldiers and values.

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