Protesting the Flag? Protesting Inequality? The Complicated Clash Behind the NFL and Kaepernick Taking a Knee.


Life may be like a box of chocolates*, surprising you at every turn, but there’s also a sense in which life is incredibly predictable.

The predictable part is this: so much of life is about navigating those moments when our values collide. Those times in life when two things that are important to you present themselves as demanding that you favor one over the other.

I think for most of us, that is the situation behind the situation when it comes to players kneeling during the national anthem in the NFL. This tension, this clashing of values, was on full display two weeks ago when all 32 teams entered the conversation.

What started a year and half ago by (then) San Francisco 49ers backup QB, Colin Kaepernick, blossomed in to a league wide demonstration of, well, there were multiple things going on, but that’s precisely the point. Something happened. 

At the instigation from several comments made by 45 (including a tweet aimed at NBA champion Steph Curry, and an insulting remark made at a speech in Alabama in which he called on NFL owners to fire players--childishly referred to as “sons of bitches”--who knelt during the anthem) players, coaches, and even some owners realized they could no longer ignore the moment. Which then caused a ripple effect, disallowing fans in the stands, viewers around the country, and even non-fans to remain as bystanders. It forced all to rise up and take a side.

And what are those sides? Well, at the risk of oversimplification, I’d say it like this:

Side A are those who side with the protesting during the National Anthem (kneeling, staying in the locker room, sitting, fist in the air, etc).

Whereas Side B are those who don’t support the protesting (e.g. boo the kneeling players, call on owners to fire the kneelers, label the whole thing as disrespectful to the flag, our country, and the service members who died for our freedom).

Back when it was just Kaepernick (who started the whole thing by sitting on the bench as the Anthem played during a pre-season game, but then moved to kneeling instead, after a conversation with a military vet who suggested kneeling would be a more respectful and more peaceful form of protest), many people had an opinion, to be sure, and some came out as Side A or Side B, but also a lot of people stayed out of it all together. But 45 threw a match on the whole thing with his insensitive (and I would argue, racially charged) remarks. Forcing bystanders to now pick a side.

(Quick sidenote: my sense was that, those players who chose to stand during the anthem and lock arms with one another were definitely *not* participating in the protest. Rather, they were making a show of solidarity with their teammates who *do* want to protest. You might want to try and call this a Side C, but I wouldn’t. I’d call it a lowercase Side a. Because ultimately they are making space for the protests, as opposed to outright opposing it.)

Now, the thing I wanted to say in this post--because you probably already knew all of what I described--goes back to how I opened this: life is nothing if not the constant navigation of clashing values. We are constantly being forced to decide which, of our any number of values in life, do we elevate at any given moment. And the risk is, when we prioritize one particular value above and beyond another, it exposes us to the criticism from others that “we must not care about” whatever it was that might have been given second place.

In the NFL #TakeaKnee situation, this was on full display.

Side A people look at Side B’ers and think, “you don’t care about racial equality in this country!”

Side B people look at Side A’ers and think, “you don’t care about the troops!”

Both sides reduce the other to a singular value (whether they protest, or don’t) and refuse to grant the possibility that the other person might very well care about all the things. They are just making a conscious choice of which one, in this moment, gets valued higher. Demands the most attention.

Those who kneel during the anthem (and those, like myself, who stand with the kneelers) are not anti-flag, anti-country, anti-service members. Rather, when these two values collide:

  1. a value on black people being treated equally in our country, specifically by law enforcement, and
  2. a value on demonstrating our pride in and support of our troops and our country

Side A people are making the choice that what matters most to them is that our country become safe and equitable for black men and women. They value both, but are making a choice to elevate one over the other.

Those who don’t like the protest are not racist jerks who don’t care about people being treated equally regardless of skin color. Rather, when these two values collide, Side B people are making the choice that what matters most to them is an unambiguous support for our troops and a commitment to honor flag and country. They value both, but are making a choice to elevate one over the other.

This is something that happens in our lives every day, where two values come online in our hearts and minds and we recognize that we cannot live them both out without having to slightly elevate one over the other.

I was at a conference two weeks ago in Minnesota talking with some people about pacifism. Inevitably, one of the people said, “but what if someone comes into your home and threatens your family, would you use violence then?”

My response to that was to name this exact tension of having to choose between conflicting values. Yes, I value nonviolence and not doing harm to another. And yes, I value my family and their well-being. And should the two collide in an unfortunate series of events, I will always value my family over and above my value of being a pacifist. So me using force--if indeed force was needed--to preserve the well being of my family, does not therefore mean that I am not a pacifist or don’t value nonviolence. It just means I had to make a choice of which one I valued more.

My hope in all of this is that, no matter which Side you find yourself on in this situation, that you would take a step back and grant those on the other side the same sort of space you grant yourself. You know that you are complex being with multiple values in life, and that choosing one does not mean you don’t care about the other. So how might you then apply that same sort of grace to those around you who--because of life circumstance and personal experiences--choose to elevate a different value?

It’s hard, living this box of chocolates life.
You never really know what you’re going to get, it’s true.

But usually it will involve making hard decisions when values that we hold dear clash with other values that we hold dear.

And we would do well to remember that those who land on different sides of issues than we do are also doing their best to navigate the tension of their conflicting values.

Kate and I discuss this exact thing on the 4th episode of The Kate and Colby Show.