Home | News | Sports: The NFL anthem protests are at a tipping point, and their legacy is riding on what happens next

Sports: The NFL anthem protests are at a tipping point, and their legacy is riding on what happens next

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  • There are signs that the NFL anthem protests could soon end.
  • The players may be best served now by ending them voluntarily.
  • "I think players are diluting the message right now by kneeling," one commentator says.

The anthem protests in the NFL are at a tipping point. With mounting pressure for them to end from President Donald Trump, Commissioner Roger Goodell, and thousands of angry fans, there are signs that the protests are working just as they seem to be failing.

When Colin Kaepernick was leading the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl, he was best known for his electric plays, his tattoos, and for kissing his bicep after touchdowns.

Then, sometime in early 2016, something changed. Kaepernick became much more vocal about social injustice and police brutality on social media.

Almost nobody noticed then. Nobody was writing stories about it. Nobody was talking about it.

Then Kaepernick sat during the national anthem before a meaningless preseason game.

It took a couple of weeks for anybody to notice that either, but 14 months later, there are now dozens of NFL players kneeling, locking arms, raising fists, or just waiting in locker rooms during the anthems, and everybody is talking about it.

Trump is delivering tweets on an almost daily basis demanding that players stand and "RESPECT OUR COUNTRY."

Goodell sent a letter to teams saying that "everyone should stand for the National Anthem," that the NFL needs to "move past this controversy," and that the league has a plan to make it happen. Part of that plan seemingly will include a new rule requiring players to stand during the anthem. But it also apparently will include efforts to give players a bigger voice on the work they do in the community and the changes that they want to help promote with their platform.

And that's where the anthem protests start to accomplish some of their goals, even if the players are forced to stop kneeling.

An NFL fan yelling at players during the national anthem.play

An NFL fan yelling at players during the national anthem.

(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Ultimately, the anthem protests were never about the anthem and they were never about the flag. The message got lost as the protests grew, in part because many critics couldn't get past what they viewed as a grave insult to the United States and everything for which it stands.

At the same time, the players just wanted to be heard. Now they are, even if the message is being somewhat lost. The way to get back on point may simply be to stop kneeling and remove the anthem and the flag from the conversation.

The conservative commentator Will Cain was a guest on ESPN's "Mike & Mike" and argued how the entire situation, as it stands now, is "lose-lose" for everybody. The only way to get the conversation back on a productive track, he said, is to stop kneeling.

"It is such a mess right now. It is such a gaggle of b.s. of people yelling at each other, accusing each other of the worst of human motivations and intentions and I don't know how we see our way out of it ... We are now landing in a place where it's lose-lose every which way around ... I do think kneeling has to stop. I think it has gotten in the way of any kind of productive conversation or any kind of productive solution, I really do. And I am one of the people, that I've made clear, that sees kneeling as an insult to the concept of the United States of America. I won't stop there. I won't stop at that insult and neglect to go forward and hear the conversation we need to have, but I think many people can't get beyond that emotional reaction to something they feel very deeply about, the American flag, the national anthem. And the players need to realize that. For a great percentage of the fan base, that's how that's landing and there won't be any conversation after that."

Cain went on to say that he agreed there were inequalities and injustices in the US. But he said that conversation was getting lost by talk about the flag and the anthem.

"There are things we can agree on, and things we can move forward on," Cain said. "But we can't just keep circling back to this national anthem and flag over and over. We need to move beyond it, and I think the way is to stand."

The former NFL player and current ESPN commentator Booger McFarland agreed.

"I think players are diluting the message right now by kneeling," McFarland said. "Because as long as you kneel, the president can continue to grandstand. He can continue to send out tweets at 3:45 in the morning. He can continue being what he's being. And now the NFL owners and Roger have to respond to all of that instead of getting to the issue of, how can we help the communities where black people feel like they have been violated over and over again."

Of course, many will argue that Trump's goal all along has been to place the focus solely on the flag and the anthem without ever addressing the reasons for the kneeling. But that doesn't mean the conversation has to stop there, something Cain addressed in a comment directed at Trump.

"President of the United States, please stay out of this," Cain said. "You are exasperating problems — not solving them."

None of this guarantees that any real action will come, and some players will most likely continue to protest even if the majority decide to move on. But kneeling was never going to bring change in and of itself. As Cain said, players have a greater goal in mind.

There needed to be a conversation, and there are signs that the conversation is starting, whether Trump is willing to acknowledge it or not. Where that conversation goes from here may now be up to the players.

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