A Thousand Ways To Kneel And Kiss The Ground : Code Switch Last week, the NFL announced a new policy to penalize players who kneel during the national anthem. The announcement drew fresh attention to the century-old tightrope that outspoken black athletes — from Floyd Patterson to Rose Robinson to Colin Kaepernick – have had to walk in order to compete and live by their principles.
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A Thousand Ways To Kneel And Kiss The Ground

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A Thousand Ways To Kneel And Kiss The Ground

A Thousand Ways To Kneel And Kiss The Ground

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Colin Kaepernick started by sitting when the national anthem played. That evolved into taking a knee during "The Star-Spangled Banner." He was protesting police violence and racism. And he was using his huge platform as a famous football player, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers to make his point.

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COLIN KAEPERNICK: There's people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. Cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That's not right. That's not right by anyone's standards.

MERAJI: What he did made a lot of people proud, and it pissed a lot of people off.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

Not long after that, Kaepernick found himself out of a job when the football season began in 2017. But other players picked up Kaepernick's baton and became kneeling during the national anthem. And since then, the protests and the controversy around them have become maybe the biggest story in American sports.

MERAJI: The story's back in the headlines because of the NFL's new policy to penalize teams if their players kneel or sit during the national anthem.

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ROGER GOODELL: If anyone is on the field and is disrespectful to the anthem or the flag, there would be a fine from the league against the team.

MERAJI: That's Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner. So that's on the field. Players can stay off the field during the national anthem if they don't want to stand.

DEMBY: And Goodell said the decision was unanimous among NFL team owners, but reports came out saying that this was more of an informal vote. And at least one owner said that he abstained altogether. Here's Roger Goodell again.

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GOODELL: All 32 clubs want to make sure that during the moment of the anthem and the flag that that is a very important moment to all of us as a league, as clubs, personally and to our country. And that's a moment that we want to make sure is done in a very respectful fashion.

MERAJI: The NFL's TV ratings dropped last season. People blamed the protests - fans and pundits. But there isn't evidence to support that theory. Nevertheless, President Trump tweeted about it, saying the American public is fed up with the disrespect the NFL is paying to our country, our flag and our national anthem. The president seems to like this new NFL policy.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I don't think people should be staying in locker rooms, but still, I think it's good. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn't be playing. You shouldn't be there. Maybe you shouldn't be in the country.

DEMBY: Some players are already speaking out against these new guidelines. Chris Long, who plays for the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, tweeted that this policy was, quote, "fear of a diminished bottom line. It's also fear of a president turning his base against a corporation. This is not patriotism. Don't get me confused," end quote.

MERAJI: And his teammate Malcolm Jenkins said, while I disagree with this decision, I will not let it silence me or stop me from fighting.

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DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And on this week's episode, we're talking sports and black political protest.

LOUIS MOORE: I'm Louis Moore, associate professor of history at Grand Valley State, where I teach sports history and civil rights.

DEMBY: Lou is the author of the book "We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, The Black Athlete, And The Quest For Equality." So I sat down with him to get some more context.

So obviously, this week, the NFL instituted a bunch of sort of vague policies around how players can protest or not protest during the national anthem. And I was curious of what you made of the league's policies.

MOORE: It might backfire on them because this is no longer about police brutality, right? It's really about free speech. And it's really about controlling black labor. And I think these players are going to realize that, that, you know, we come from these communities. And, you know, you're willing to see us bash our brains in. Let us - just give us an opportunity to have this platform if we want. And it's not even clear that they really wanted to take that platform, right? At the end of year, only seven players kneeled.

But now it's not about, you know, kneeling against police brutality. Now it's going to be about figuring out a way to show that they're unified for free speech. And that's going to be tougher for the NFL to fight. It's easy to fight, you know, people are protesting for police brutality because the naysayers will just point to the military. They'll point to the American flag. And then they'll also point to Chicago and tell these players to be quiet, right? You can't do that with free speech.

DEMBY: Can you tell us about the politics of black protest, sort of the continuum of the way that black athletes sort of organize and disagree with each other in public?

MOORE: Yes, before the civil rights movement, like, where it really shows to kick off, you only have a few athletes getting involved, like a Jackie Robinson. But once the civil rights movement gets going, you'll start to see more black athletes get involved. And that's because they realize that if these young kids are going to be on the streets and putting their lives on the lines, then they have to do this, too. So someone like heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson, at the time, was watching the sit-in movements on TV. And then everything clicked for him. He said, I have to get involved.

And then the next year, he's putting in his contract that you have to desegregate this stadium in Miami if I'm going to have this heavyweight championship. By - in '62, he's going to Mississippi with Jackie Robinson to talk to civil rights leaders. In '63, he's going to Birmingham. Him and Jackie Robinson eventually try to create a housing tract that's integrated homes. So it's that type of, you know, the visuals of the civil rights movement, understanding the risks that these kids are taking that push a lot of these athletes into the movement to be activist athletes.

DEMBY: And what kind of pushback are they getting from the public as this is all happening?

MOORE: In the '60s, it really depends. It's individual. I think the person who gets the most pushback is someone like a Bill Russell because he speaks out a lot.

DEMBY: Bill Russell, for those of you who don't know, is the legendary center for the Boston Celtics. He's also the first black head coach in American pro sports.

MOORE: From what I've read, if you're simply just saying like, we need civil rights, you're going to be part of this movement, there's not a lot of pushback from the public because how can you argue that? But then if you're someone like Bill Russell who is not only talking about civil rights but is also agreeing with someone like a Malcolm X, who's also coming out at the March on Washington and saying it shouldn't have been integrated, then you'll get pushback.

What's interesting, though, where they do get pushback is from Jesse Owens. So there's this pretty famous incident in 1963 when Jackie Robinson and Floyd Patterson go to Birmingham. And Jesse Owens does an interview and he openly criticizes them, essentially calls them outside agitators. And Jackie Robinson, who has a column at that time, writes back and says essentially, look, like I'm not free until all my people are free.

DEMBY: Let's talk about Jesse Owens because he's, you know, an American track star. He runs in the Olympics in Berlin before World War II. And the way that we tell that story now is that he was sort of a symbol of American sort of relative progressiveness on race as compared to Nazi Germany - right? - that he ran in front of the, you know, the Nazi leadership and proved that there was no such thing as Aryan superiority. That's the way we tell that story now. But in your book, you sort of talk about the way that Jesse Owens was a much more complicated figure and in his time was sort of viewed skeptically by other black athletes.

MOORE: Right. So what we do with black athletes - and Jesse Owens is a great example of this, especially those athletes who are on Olympic teams - we always use them as examples of our democracy at home. Understanding that we have Jim Crow at home, but still, here is this black guy who grew up in the South, is part of the Great Migration movement - Cleveland - grows up in the ghettos, but yet he could still be a four-time gold medalist, right? And we say, well, America, there's opportunity. But what Jesse - what happens to Jesse is he comes home and he faces discrimination all over again. But

still, Jesse buys into this narrative that sports is essentially the best thing for black Americans. So what he does is throughout the civil rights movement is he sets himself up as that person. So if there's an athlete going to protest, he goes after them and says, you know, you can't do this. Sports has been good to us. And every time he does that, there's always a pushback essentially telling Jesse, like look, man, you came home. You're a superstar. There's segregation. You know, we're not trying to live that type of life. And that happens most famously to him after John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in the air.

DEMBY: John Carlos and Tommie Smith - you almost certainly remember from that iconic photo of them with their gloved fists in the air on the podium at the 1968 Olympics.

MOORE: The Olympic committee brings Jesse Owens in to talk to the black athletes, and they essentially shame him. And he leaves with tears in his eyes.

DEMBY: One of the stories you tell in your book is the story of Rose Robinson, who sort of took the opposite tack, that in a lot of ways you can sort of see as a template for someone like a Colin Kaepernick, right? Can you tell us a little bit about Rose Robinson? Because she's not somebody that I ever heard about until I read your book.

MOORE: Right. So Rose is a decent athlete. She's a high jumper. I believe her best jump might be around 5'2, 5'3. She's from Chicago. She's a member, of course, of the Congress of Racial Equality. But as an athlete, once the Cold War kicks off and she understands that the United States government is using her as a black person to say something about democracy that's essentially not true, she pulls away from the system.

So in 1959, when the United States and Soviets agree to have track meets - right? - these type of goodwill games to promote peace, she qualifies to go but refuses to go. And so she says she's not going allow her country to use her in that way. She also - it's noted in the press that during the Pan Am Games in America, she doesn't stand up for the national anthem. And then in 1960, she is actually arrested for refusing to pay taxes. And she goes on a hunger strike.

DEMBY: What was the pushback to Rose Robinson when she decided not to stand for the anthem?

MOORE: None that we could see. I'm sure people were upset, but this is just something that's just not covered. One thing I do is go through the black newspapers. Outside of Jet, there's rarely any mention of her as this activist athlete. It's just - you know, a part of it is that she's a woman, and they're just not covering these types of things. But there's no, like, black writer - right? - really pumping her up like you would do with Jackie Robinson or Elgin Baylor, who boycotts a game that same year.

DEMBY: Obviously, professional sports is a much different sort of beast now than it was in the '60s. So can you tell us a little bit about the landscape now for black activists athletes and, like, where Colin Kaepernick and Malcolm Jenkins and Eric Reid sort of fit into that landscape?

MOORE: Yeah. I would say the first thing that's very similar is just that there was a movement before they got involved. So the Black Lives movement, which we don't see much publicly anymore, but, you know, that gets people involved, right? Like, how could you not want to be part of something when you see thousands of thousands people that look like you out on the street protesting for rights?

So you'll see something like a Derrick Rose or a LeBron James wearing their I Can't Breathe shirt. You'll see those players from the St. Louis Rams doing the hands up, can't shoot. And this is what touches Kaep. Like, it takes him a little bit longer than other athletes. But, you know, that Alton Sterling murder - I believe right after that happens, this is when he starts to kneel. And so that...

DEMBY: Alton Sterling is the shooting in Louisiana, right?

MOORE: Right. Baton Rouge, I believe. That happens a month before Kaep sits, and then he kneels. And Kaep is not technically revolting from the system at this time, but he's using the system and the game itself to raise a point. And the pushback is very similar to what you see with John Carlos and Tommie Smith, which is they protest during the anthem when all eyes are on them - right? And it's this magical moment for me because I love it where they're just essentially saying like, look, we have USA across our chest, but we're going to tell you what it's like to be black in America. And the blowback like you wouldn't - I guess you would believe. But what I've been doing recently is just going through all these newspapers and reading not only editorials but letters to the editors.

DEMBY: What were they saying?

MOORE: Oh, gosh, you know, how un-American it is, how unpatriotic it is. And it's the, you know, the - we're all the same human race. Like, how could you do this? Like, it's ridiculous stuff like that. You know, there's a sports editor in Birmingham who essentially equates them to the KKK. A lot of people are missing the point. Some white folks who do agree with them do it in a way and essentially say, look, I'm not black. This is their thing. And this must be an important issue for them to raise. But the overwhelming majority - there's a lot of people upset because they feel embarrassed and essentially because it makes Americans have to deal with racism, right?

DEMBY: So we - can we talk about sort of the way the economics, the way that contemporary athletes are compensated, the way that changes the way that people think about whether they should be active? Because one of the things you see a lot is, like, oh, well, these are millionaires - right? - they shouldn't be complaining.

MOORE: I think that there's a couple of things actually going on. One - you hit on it with this merit talk. So just in general because they're athletes, right - and they're black athletes - there's always going to be that argument that if you weren't an athlete, you would be in the ghetto, you'd be in the jails. And then you add that money element to it, and it becomes essentially, like, just shut up and play. You have all this money. How are you going to complain? And we saw this in the '60s. So - until Jackie Robinson came around on Mohammed Ali.

One of his first criticisms with Ali, when Ali comes out against the Vietnam War, is that America is this country that allows you to make all this money. America's this country that allows you to speak. So how dare you not, you know, go into the military? Now it takes Jackie to come around on this and see, you know, the problems of the war and actually what Ali's protesting. And we saw it recently, like, with Lebron when he had the N-word spray painted on his house. There's a black sportswriter. And he's essentially trying to make the point that because of Lebron's money - right? - like, he's not touched by racism, which is essentially not true.

Like, I put together this quick story map from the early 1900s to today where all these black athletes are dealing with housing discrimination - right? - that the most influential black athletes can't buy houses in white neighborhoods. Now if we move forward with Kaep, it's like, you know, the brother has - had a $114 million contract. And people are essentially saying, well, the No. 1 complaint is you're rich. Like, what are you doing? You know, you shouldn't be speaking out. You have all this success. You have all this money. You've made it. There's no problem because you've made it. And I think I want to go back to what Jackie said and when Jesse Owens came at him. And this is the same thing Kaep is saying is like, I'm not free until all my peoples are free, right?

DEMBY: One of the things that's interesting about the Kaep situation - as we all know, Colin Kaepernick has not been in the league for the last season, right? Some people who are affiliated with him - Eric Reid, who was a teammate of Colin Kaepernick, who was also kneeling, also does not currently have a contract.

And so a lot of people have talked about the fact that this looks like collusion on the part of the NFL, that this looks like the NFL is actively trying to keep these athletes, who've been outspoken about racial inequality and protesting during the national anthem, out of the league. Watching the conversation about Kaepernick for the last year has been about, like, whether this is actually blackballing or whether he's just not good enough to play in the NFL.

MOORE: One reason why it's hard to talk about race in sports is because what sports does is it celebrates this idea of meritocracy and democracy, the best person gets an opportunity. And so a lot of Americans like to rally around that idea - right? - that you can come from nothing and rise to the top. And so, you know, someone like a Jack Johnson - born a son of slaves, the heavyweight champion of the world right? But what's also clear - what I always like to point to, like, history as an example is that we had Negro League Baseball. And that had nothing to do with merit - what happens with the Negro Leagues. And there's nothing, you know, written down, technically, that says it's collusion or anything.

It's just that all of the white owners in professional baseball just agreed - they call it the gentleman's agreement - not to sign these players. So they don't have to have these conversations. They just know that this is the gentleman's agreement, right? So you're going to keep out a Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, you know, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell. All these great players who have gone on to the Hall of Fame, you're going to keep them out. And so in sports, again, we celebrate merit, but that - for a lot of black athletes, that's never really been the case.

DEMBY: How can we expect for this - for the Kaepernick situation to sort of resolve itself?

MOORE: If Kaep ever gets a job, I don't know how well he's going to be able to perform to take that much time off. But in the end, I think Kaep will be celebrated. You know, John Carlos and Tommie Smith are celebrated as heroes. Ali's celebrated as heroes. A lot of people did not like Jackie Robinson during his playing days and afterwards because he pushed for civil rights. He's celebrated as a hero. His jersey's retired. So I think history will be on Kaep's side.

DEMBY: Lou Moore is a professor at Grand Valley State University, where he's a professor of African-American history. And he's also the author of "We Will Win The Day: The Civil Rights Movement, The Black Athlete, And The Quest For Equality." Thank you so much, Lou.

MOORE: All right. Thanks for having me.

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MERAJI: After the break, we're revisiting a conversation with ESPN's Jemele Hill, who was condemned by the White House after she refused to, quote, "stick to sports."

DEMBY: Stay with us.

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DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

MERAJI: Last year, Jemele Hill was the co-anchor of ESPN's "SportsCenter," which was a big deal. A black woman was the face of ESPN's flagship show. She's got a different role now. She's a senior correspondent and columnist for ESPN and The Undefeated. And her new piece is headlined, the NFL shows who and what it values with the new anthem policy.

DEMBY: The opening line in it is - so now we know for certain that the NFL is full of it (laughter).

MERAJI: Jemele does not hold her punches.

DEMBY: No, she does not.

MERAJI: And, Gene, you talked to Jemele not long after the White House said she should be fired for calling President Trump a white supremacist. This was after his response to a fatal attack by a white nationalist in Charlottesville.

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DEMBY: One of the things that's been really fascinating to watch over the last year is this suggestion that there should be a hard partition between sports and politics. And so, like, this year obviously has been consumed by a lot of stories that are sports and politics at the same time. I guess - I'm curious as to how you think ESPN can go about navigating the spaces that are - have always been political but are now, like, very explicitly so.

JEMELE HILL: The only thing different about it now is, like, it's more divisive just in our country in general. And so that's the thing that makes it hard because even if you just do, you know, flat reporting about, say, Colin Kaepernick taking a knee, you're going to get wildly emotional reactions.

DEMBY: Right.

HILL: And we're just reporting the news. We're not even weighing in. We're just telling you it happened or telling you why he's doing it, which is our journalistic responsibility to do is to explain it in context. And so people still get mad. And it's, like, all right, but it's just the news. It's an event. It's the biggest story in sports of the year. There's no question about it. Like - I mean, you can even argue the last two years. But the biggest story of the year is that and that we would be journalistically irresponsible if we did not discuss it.

So I think what we have to do - and what I often do, I just remind them that politics has been everywhere in sports for so long that you've just come to accept it and didn't even realize it. You know, anytime a team moves, anytime a team gets a stadium built - those are built largely with taxpayer dollars. It has to be voted on...

DEMBY: Right.

HILL: ...Which makes it political. And even the association with the NFL - I'll just use him them in particular - and the military - that's political. Flyovers are political. The anthem is political. So it's always been there. So it's funny how people pick and choose when they're OK with politics being in sports, depending on how they feel about said politics. So they're reacting to Colin Kaepernick the way that they are because they don't believe that the cause that he's chosen to get behind, they don't find any justification for it.

DEMBY: So I've been thinking about this a lot. And it seems like the NFL is in a really unique spot among the professional sports. So you have baseball, which has a fan base that is overwhelmingly white and a little bit older. I think the median age is in the 50s but has players - are mostly white, too. You've got the NBA on the other hand, which is a league where most of the players are black. More than half of the NBA's TV audience is people of color, right? Nearly half of the NBA's fanbase is under the age of 35. So their politics that play out in those sports are a little bit different because they're a little bit more in sync, right?

But then you have the NFL, which is, of course, the most popular sport in the country. There was a study that came out earlier this year that said that the NFL's fans tend to skew right of center. So they're Republican voters. So you have this league full of black players. And you have this fan base full of white people who are a little bit older and a little bit more conservative kind of in tension. But that tension has always been - it doesn't often get spoken out loud. It seems like watching the protests this fall and the reaction to those protests that a lot of that reaction was probably overdue. And I'm just curious how you think these protests will resolve themselves.

HILL: I don't think they will. I don't know if that toothpaste is going back in the tube. And while it's interesting that you noted and pointed that out that, like, automatic tension just given who the base of fans are versus who the players are versus the structure of the NFL from who is ownership and even the way that they're paid, the fact that the contracts are not...

DEMBY: Are not guaranteed.

HILL: ...Are not guaranteed. So you have a lot of elements there.

DEMBY: Right.

HILL: A undrafted rookie can become a star. And you're hired to be fired. You're there to be replaced. And so now that the players have exposed that they're not willing to do that, that they're not willing to just go along with the status quo, and that they want a voice, and that they want to use their platform for something bigger, then it becomes a problem. And throughout the history of sports - and when it comes to sports and race - we've seen this routinely is that whenever black athletes ever jump outside the box of going beyond just being the entertainment of society, it's met with tremendous blowback.

And that's why I think Colin Kaepernick doesn't have a job. See, it's one thing - I don't say this to be casual about the issue because it's very serious. But had Colin Kaepernick put his hands on a woman, he'd be back in the league because that tale of redemption can be sold. You can't do that with Colin Kaepernick because we're talking about thought. We're talking about how he is as a person and as a man. He's not going to all of a sudden tomorrow say, you know what? Come to think of it, Philando Castile got what he deserved. That's not going to happen. So they can't "redeem," quote, unquote, Colin Kaepernick. They can't sell that story. And so the owners know that. So he's never going to be palatable for fans.

DEMBY: Jemele Hill is the co-host of ESPN's "SportsCenter." She joins us from Bristol, Conn. Jemele, thank you so, so much for coming through. I appreciate you.

HILL: Thank you for having me.

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DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. Follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Email us at codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed.

MERAJI: And sign up for our newsletter. You can do that at npr.org/newsletter/codeswitch.

DEMBY: This episode was produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez and edited by Sami Yenigun, Steve Drummond and Leah Donnella. A shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Kat Chow, Adrian Florido, Karen Grigsby Bates, Walter Ray Watson. Our intern is Angelo Bautista. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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