The raging controversy over National Football League player protests against racial injustice – and the new NFL rule saying players have to stand for the national anthem or stay in the locker room while it is played – has divided fans, the league and players. It’s time to heal those divisions and unite, remembering that all of us are members of the same team – the United States of America.
Our national anthem and American flag are, after all, declarations of national unity and gratitude for the country we love. So is the Pledge of Allegiance, an inspirational call for "liberty and justice for all."
Like an unexpected blitz in football, crises like the one facing the NFL today, involving some players kneeling while the national anthem is played, present not only a challenge but an opportunity.
Blitzes are sudden attacks on the offense, a crisis with both danger and opportunity. Great teams don't panic, get defensive or isolate themselves in a blitz. They communicate early and often, make adjustments on the fly and seize the opportunity to move the ball down the field together.
This is what the NFL and we all must do as a nation. We have to get through the arguments over kneeling and get about the important work of making our country more just and dynamic for everyone – regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, income level or any other distinctions.
Our family knows football. We were pro football quarterbacks and faced many blitzes. So did our late father, Jack Kemp, who quarterbacked for 13 years in the NFL and American Football League. Our father won two championships with the Buffalo Bills before serving as a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Buffalo, New York and then as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Our bleeding-heart conservative father – who led the AFL Players Association during his playing days – taught us that American success does not leave anyone behind, that we should care for the underdog, and that we should follow the model of the Good Shepherd.
Today the blitz that America is facing is injustice anywhere, like the unresolved case of NFL Players Coalition leader Anquan Boldin's cousin, Corey Jones, who was shot by an off-duty police officer in 2015. Players see the threat of a criminal justice system biased against people of color, instances of police brutality and urban decay. All damage faith in our system.
The blitz is also the reduction of this American moment in history to nothing but politicized debates, derogatory name-calling and dictated workplace rules. Winning must include us all.
Kneeling during any nation’s anthem is disrespectful. But it’s also disrespectful to give anthem debates more attention than advancing the American Idea of justice for all and opportunity in every one of our communities.
With courageous and discerning efforts by the Players Coalition and others, NFL players and owners began coming together last year. Kneeling protests were waning and the partnership between players and owners – including a $90 million down payment by the league to be used to advance social justice causes – was growing.
But now there is a risk of dropping the conversation and adopting rules requiring all players to stand for the anthem (or stay off the field), with the threat of new forms of protest looming. Rules without relationship simply fuel rebellion. The onus is on the league – as well as the players – to fuel relationship and respect.
A collective win for the NFL and America can come when the league and players answer these questions:
Players: How can we gain the largest participation by teammates, owners and fans in our effort to tackle injustice?
Owners: How can we increase the communication and trust with players and fans?
Both: How can we make the NFL the best it can be for fans and for America by impacting crucial social causes in non-political ways?
The NFL should call an audible on the new rule against protests during playing of the national anthem. The rule may sound like a good idea, but it will cause more problems than it will solve.
Instead of pressing forward with the new rule, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, owners and players should continue the good work they started with the Players Coalition, which is aimed at fighting discrimination, injustice and a lack of equal opportunity. Together, they could also define an anthem policy that honors the nation, the fans and the players.
The owners, Players Coalition and NFL Players Association can address their new post-anthem rule problems (loss of player trust, muzzling player voices and bad public relations) by identifying the current divide between them and resolving the blitz at hand through comprehensive communication. This will reduce the players’ impulse to protest because it will respond to their concerns in a proactive way.
The NFL has invested considerable time talking to some players and working on this issue. The new "anthem rule" is like a failed strategy in a pre-season game. The league can admit that, call the Players Coalition and Players Association into a huddle and aim for a win-win solution instead of a cautious defensive move.
By working with the league, players could create a 1,700-player united front instead of the relatively small number who have joined the kneelers. Most players care about the issues being raised but don’t want to kneel during the anthem.
Players can create ways to participate that don’t put their own careers unnecessarily at odds with fans, owners, politicians and anyone who interprets protests against the anthem as protests against the flag the military, and loyalty to America.
Working together, the owners and players can produce solutions that are patriotic, progressive and profitable – both financially and socially – for everyone involved, raising awareness and drawing attention to important issues without tarnishing the anthem or flag.
The best ideas will come from the players like those who cared enough to create the Players Coalition, but here’s one we suggest: a collective move to kneel for 15 seconds before or after the national anthem and to verbally make it crystal clear what that kneeling means – no confusion with an attack on the flag, but an extension of what it represents.
“Taking a knee” could then be legitimately described as a call and commitment to problem-solving and justice solutions. We’d kneel for that.
Professional football has an epic influence in America, and now is the time to use it for good, not just to cast blame or merely prevent political and fan backlash. The NFL and its players can show America how to face a blitz – how to address crucial problems in America, and how to protect the dignity of our anthem and flag.
As our father – who started playing pro football in 1957 – told us, the game has a history of combating racism and bringing America together.
We grew up hearing the story of the 1965 American Football League All-Star Game that was scheduled to be played in New Orleans – a locale that immediately signaled danger for some of the players selected to play.
African-American players like Ernie Warlick, Cookie Gilchrist and Paul Lowe could not use cabs, eat at restaurants, or stay in the same hotels as their white teammates. Though a relatively small minority then, the affected players told our father – one of the team captains – that they weren’t going to play in the segregated city.
The rest of the team heard the black players out, discussed the problem and collectively boycotted New Orleans. This prompted the league to relocate the game to Houston, where the same level of racial discrimination would not divide the players.
Stories like this illustrate what we were taught about the American Idea – that in this great country, the condition of one's birth should never determine the outcome of one’s life. It also demonstrated that standing up for building a more perfect union is everyone’s responsibility.
In many ways, conditions have improved since the blatant racism surrounding that All-Star Game in 1965. And yet, in 2018 issues of race, poverty and injustice have become murkier. They can be harder to pin down and solve.
Football players, of course, are only a tiny sliver of the population. What can the rest of us do? We can take the concern for improved race relations personally – not politically. We can include every American, especially those left behind, when we aim to win as a nation.
Invite someone to dinner this summer – folks from a different race, religion or background. Learn their story and experiences with police, injustice and American opportunity.
And whether in conversation or social media, let’s follow the dinner table rule: Debate issues and tactics, but don’t call others names or malign the motives of either side. A fresh dose of humility and civility will do us all good.
The American Idea is that we have inalienable rights regardless of skin color, religion or any other possible distinctions. The NFL provides dynamic entertainment, opportunity and life lessons about this great idea for those who play and watch.
The league and its players have an opportunity to make patriotism more than gestures. They can collectively address the civic concerns that prompted the kneeling in the first place.
Since the protests began, most of the public rhetoric has gone toward debate and posturing about the anthem protest, and not enough time and energy have been devoted to seeking solutions to bring about justice and opportunity for all. With a few wise moves by the NFL and its players, this could change immediately and with dramatic effect.
Beating this blitz and seizing this American moment will take a gutsy, compassionate and solution-oriented effort to lift America closer to her ideals of liberty and justice for all. It’s an important job for us all.
Jimmy Kemp played eight years in the CFL and is president of the Jack Kemp Foundation, dedicated to advancing the American Idea.