Breitbart recently carried a story about three Miami Dolphins players (wide receiver Kenny Stills, receiver Albert Wilson, and defensive end Robert Quinn) who either took a knee or raised a fist in response to the playing of the National Anthem. Predictably enough, Breitbart excoriated the three players participating in the protest for their ostensible disrespect for the Flag, the Nation, the Armed Forces, … you know … the usual litany of synthetic outrage. Which got me to thinking … it might be interesting to indulge in a purely speculative thought experiment about the way events might unfold, in this instance and in all other instances of NFL players kneeling in response to the Anthem in an alternate parallel Universe. Thought experiments – or gedanken experiments – have a long and venerable history as springboards to scientific investigation. No less a personage than Albert Einstein loved to engage in thought-experimentation to get the theoretical juices flowing. So let’s borrow a page from his book. Consider the following gedanken experiment ...
Let’s suppose – just to be supposing, as I have no idea if such is the case anywhere in the Multiverse of universes – that in some alternate / parallel universe the NFL exists, just as it does in ours, the rules of football are precisely the same, players’ salaries are the same to the penny, football fans’ enthusiasm is likewise unchanged, etc. In fact, let’s suppose that, in our parallel Reality, the only difference is that alternate-reality football is engaged in by players who are overwhelmingly white. The question I propose examining is this: “How would fans’ and politicians’ reactions differ if, instead of seeing black / African-American players kneeling for the playing of the National Anthem, white players did the same thing?”
My answer to the question in boldface type is purely speculative, you understand. I make no claim that it is otherwise. But, if we may hold strict factuality in abeyance and concentrate on the “alternative facts” of which Trump, Trump supporters, and the current White House staff are so enamored, the following is at least mildly plausible, especially in light of certain precedential beliefs and attitudes -- keep reading! -- that were nurtured 150 years or so ago in this universe’s version of the American Civil War.
Speculation Number 1: If the kneeling and fist-raising players had been white instead of African-American, defenders of the white-kneelers' ostensibly disrespectful behavior would scramble to justify the white players' actions by appealing to a whole multitude of byzantine rationalizations. Herewith a few examples:
o The white players obviously knelt in order to engage in communal prayer – at this point, think “Tim Tebow” – before the kickoff as an expression of their common faith in (obviously, the Christian) God.
o The white players in the alternate universe obviously knelt in honored remembrance of those members of the American military who fell in battle defending the Nation, a practice often engaged in in this universe by active-duty members of said military. The occasional raised fist was no less obviously intended to fling defiance into the face of any future adversary.
o In a rather more secular understanding, kneeling in unison before the kickoff might be interpreted as an outward demonstration of the individual members’ esprit de corps in honor of the team: the team “falls” together by kneeling, then “rises” together by standing, a secular liturgy modeled on the pattern of chiastic falling-then-rising St. Paul alludes to in his great hymn in Philippians 2:5-8. In a more secular understanding, this could be interpreted, in the case of an all-white NFL, as meaning “We are all in this together: we win together; we lose together; win or lose, we are one team”.
Speculation Number 2: I have never read any critique of the players’ behavior – in this universe, that is – that did not, at some juncture, point out with faux irony the supposed anomaly of a group of star athletes, all of whom are multi-millionaires several dozen times over, and living in ostentatious mansions that are bigger than many small towns, nevertheless displaying outrage at the poverty of others. The underlying assumption seems to be that the black NFL players in this universe are so anomalously fortunate that they should simply take their riches and hibernate on top of their gold, rather like the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit, because, after all, what could they possibly have to protest? The point being: if others' poverty does not affect the black NFL players, then why should the latter be concerned?
The implication – again, I am speculating here – is that black NFL players are so improbably fortunate that there is something at least mildly obscene about being thus favored while, at the same time, expressing outrage at the poverty of others. The only analogy I could think of would be if it were somehow discovered that some obscure legal technicality left Butterfly McQueen the sole proprietor of Tara in Gone With the Wind … whereupon Ms. McQueen turns around and, biting the beneficent hand of the very slave system that enriched her, began to complain that all the other slaves on the plantation lived in hovels and huts.
This attitude on the part of the players’ critics in this universe is all the more puzzling given that, as devout, practicing, observant Christians, of whose personal piety they never tire of bombastically reminding others, the Trump-supporting critics must surely be aware of biblical texts like, e.g., Luke 12:48 -- From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. Equally puzzling is their lack of attention to Isaiah 1:16,17 -- Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. This is why I refer to the critics' citation of the NFL players' protest as faux irony: it is fake / synthetic irony because, in reality, there is nothing at all ironic about it. The point is that, far from being anomalous, the attitude of offense and outrage at the misfortune of others while one is in a position of privilege is of the very distilled essence of biblical socio-economic teaching, not a contradiction of it. Again, it is passing strange how the players’ good Christian critics are evidently unaware of this. Judging by conservatives' protestations of religious zeal, surely biblical illiteracy could not be the reason! For, in our hypothetical parallel universe, the white counterparts of the NFL protesters would be praised as men of personal righteousness and social conscience. In the latter case involving white NFL kneelers, no doubt Trump supporters would find the 25th chapter of Matthew reflected in the white players' behavior.
Two concluding speculations ... first, one could, I believe, make a case that the critics of the black NFL kneelers are motivated, no doubt unconsciously, by the white man’s “classical” fear of black men’s power. The nightmare of the antebellum south was that, once black slaves had been freed, either by law or rebellion, since they were the mere human-shaped apes their former masters believed them to be, the male freed slaves would proceed to give vent to the propensities for lust and violence that – again, so it was believed at the time – was tamped down, domesticated, and inhibited only by the sheer power of segregation and slavery. Remove the pressure of slavery, and it was believed that the liberated blacks would revert to type: kill their white plantation masters, rape their wives and daughters, burn the Big House on the hill, and generally immolate Southern white culture and civilization in a paroxysm of unbridled savagery. Ultimately, as many conservatives continue to argue to this day, such a development would even redound to the harm of the slaves themselves. As evidence, white plantation owners pointed to John Brown’s abortive raid on the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in 1859, among other such events.
Critics of the NFL players’ protests continue this tradition. So any hint of dissent, any whiff of African-Americans critiquing the larger economy and society, must be suppressed as an incipient Harper’s Ferry uprising in embryo, even if doing so means explicitly suppressing the biblical command that the wealthy use their wealth in the service of their less fortunate and less affluent brothers and sisters. The dirty little secret is that money in the hands of black folks in the 21st century is no less terrifying to conservative Trump supporters than guns in the hands of black folks were to white Southerners in the middle 19th century.
Secondly, there is the fact that, in kneeling before the playing of the Anthem, the NFL protesters were only violating a matter of custom -- of etiquette, if you will --not of law. Basically, the Supreme Court has ruled that any content-based restriction on the treatment of any national symbol is inconsistent with the First Amendment, and that any such restriction is permissible only on some other, non-content-related basis, e.g., stealing and / or damaging government property. So kneeling for the Anthem is a violation of custom, not a violation of law. Kneeling for the Anthem is more like using the wrong fork at a formal dinner at Downton Abbey than robbing a bank and killing a couple of tellers. But the vehemence of the outrage further dramatizes the intensity of how starkly terrified white Trump supporters are of black men with power -- in this case, financial and cultural power. So acute is this fear that even a minor infraction of guidelines as to etiquette ignites a firestorm of protest altogether disproportionate to the provocation, like locking someone away in the Tower of London for farting at a formal high tea at Harrod's. One doubts that similarly vehement protests would be provoked by an all-white biker gang in our parallel universe adopting a uniform requiring the wearing of Stars-and-Stripes do-rags on members' heads -- provided that it was an all-white biker gang. Once more, even the mildest, most modest hint of dissension and rebellion must be ruthlessly suppressed, because each such instance is regarded as at least a potential gateway to some latter-day Harper's Ferry or Nat Turner uprising. During the Jim Crow era. this practice was known at "Keeping them in their place".
But – again, and as I have averred repeatedly throughout this column – what do I know? I am just speculating.
James R. Cowles
Kneeling football players ... Frances Rankin ... CC by 2.0
Kneeling Dolphins ... AP / Stephen Breashear ... CC by 2.0
Kneeling player ... Pixabay ... CC0 Creative Commons
Harper's Ferry raid ... Frank Leslie ... Public domain
John Brown portrait ... Library of Congress ... Public domain
Slaves picking cotton ... Photographer unknown, 1850 ... Public domainv
Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick kneeling ... AP, Stephen Savoia ... Creative Commons 2.0