Football, the anthem and the denial of black success

The youth football team of the author’s son and the opposing team kneel for prayer. (Photo by Tierra Johnson)

The only football that I’ve have watched this entire season has been that of my 9-year-old son’s youth team. This is his first year playing and I’ve watched him go from simple drill practices to playing games with his peers taking hits and making tackles.

He has wanted to play for two years since the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl. Now that he has the opportunity, he works hard to be the best that he can be in the sport for which he has a tremendous amount of admiration and respect.

I watch my son and his teammates who are all young boys of all backgrounds and ethnicities, learn to have unity as a team and greater sense of self as individuals.

My son’s participation and growth within his team has been the most rewarding thing to witness. The majority of this reward is watching him navigate his sense of self, pushing himself past his preconceived boundaries and with the state of the world, the shaping of his morality.

His experience on his team has also brought home the criticisms of the professional football players’ protests of the national anthem.

Months before his youth football season started, I told my son we would not be watching the NFL season due to the NFL blacklisting of Colin Kaepernick.

My kids know what’s going on in the NFL, and they know about Kaepernick’s decision last year to kneel during the national anthem and this season’s protests. We have discussed the protests at great length because we have been discussing the events of police brutality that led Kaepernick to first take a knee.

I am the daughter of a veteran who was the son of a veteran with numerous veterans in our family. Despite my family background, I don’t believe the protests of the national anthem or the flag is unpatriotic — as some critics, including President Donald Trump, have tried to portray them.

The protest recently took a turn from Kaepernick’s intention to call out social injustice and police brutality against black people, to a way of spiting the reprehensible remarks made by 45 when he called all protesting athletes a bunch of SOBs.

While nothing comes out of that man that surprises me, every time he speaks I am able to further illustrate to my sons what true ignorance, contradiction and projection looks like.

I pointed out Trump’s remarks regarding Charlottesville — when he said some “very fine people” had marched with the white nationalists — and how no one what was cursed for their asinine and hateful behavior, yet when we are discussing black athlete’s taking a stand, he is seen encouraging NFL owners to fire “the son of a bitch” who kneels for the flag.

Trump tweeted:

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL,or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect… . Our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

The privilege?

Why is it that when a black person obtains success, the status quo will speak as if that success was given to them or they were simply “allowed” to have it?

Professional athletes in the NFL have had to take a long road to get to where they are. They have had single-minded determination to arrive at that destination. They trained, sacrificed their bodies and spend time away from their families in order to perform on a national stage. No one has given them anything

But, that their success is a “privilege” instead the result of hard work is an age-old paradigm that has never faded from our society or from the projections of white supremacy.

All this talk of the players being “degenerates” and “ungrateful” is to imply yet again that if a black man is successful and making millions he should just be happy he was allowed to obtain it and shut up about any grievances he may have. This has been the underlying expectation of black america for 100s of years. If a slave wouldn’t conform, they were deemed disobedient or rebellious.

After Reconstruction, a black person who challenged injustice and asserted their humanity was called “an uppity nigger.” While the language may have become more polite over time, little has changed, except today we are called degenerate and ungrateful, and apparently our mamas are bitches. Anytime we demand more than the scraps we are given by society in the way of justice, others denounce and belittle the success that we’ve been able to build.

A privilege is an unearned gift. My 9-year-old was randomly selected to by his team to attend a Seahawks game at the beginning of the season, where he was able to tour the stadium and see the field up close. He is an individual who should be grateful, because that visit was a privilege.

But the grown men in the NFL have a job to do and they have earned it — and they do it. Whether they sit or stand, kneel or stay in the locker room, the only entity they need to show gratitude to is their higher power and the people who fill the stands.

Ultimately, this also is an example of how our sharp criticisms of the injustices against black people are getting watered down, co-opted and ignored. When we denounce injustice in this country, others try to call it something else and shift attention elsewhere. This protest is and remains about the social inequality of black citizens, police brutality and using one’s spotlight to get a message out there. It’s about being true to your convictions and never settling for going along just to get along.

Because like I told my son, there is something more to dignity than just some damn game.


  1. Thank you Tierra! Another great article.

    I haven’t watched any NFL this year…and it’s been great!! I’m not missing anything!!

    It’s the people that watch the NFL every Sunday that are losing, not the teams.

    And really, do we want to fight for grown men to make millions of dollars playing a sport so the white men that own the league can make billions. Talk about a plantation mentality, the NFL is the worst when it comes to that.

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