Land of the Free…

Land of the Free… Image by Quick'N'Derby.

Taking a knee is something we are familiar with in the world of derby.

There was a time when a whole team line would use it as a loophole to force the jammer release, back in the days of the single and double whistle starts.

There’s the knee drop prior to the single whistle start, giving your jammer the opportunity to draw the out of play penalty on the opposing team who refuses to move off of the jammer line.

Some people have been using it to break the pack after offensive plays.

Then there is the taking of a knee when someone has gone down hard and wasn’t able to get back up right away. This knee in derby is a show of solidarity and respect of the person on the floor.

I want to discuss Kaepernick’s silent protest through this re-frame.

Colin Kaepernick has touched off an ever-growing controversy by silently protesting the national anthem at games. He is now the least popular NFL player in a sea of players who participate in all manner of far less noble behavior on and off the field (that’s National Football League, for those outside of the USA).

Groups are protesting the violence in this country against black and brown bodies in myriad ways: marching in the streets/shutting down traffic; entering traditionally white spaces, thereby turning the patrons into a captive audience; and asking everyone to stay home/not spend dollars on a particular day.

Those who willfully look away brand all of these tactics as counterproductive. Taking a knee, then, should surely please these naysayers.

Kaepernick’s detractors have used everything from accusing the man of disrespecting his white adoptive parents to disrespecting fallen servicewomen and men.

Then there is the no politics in sport – the “shut up and play ball” – popular argument. But given that even your latest snacking choice has a whole politics around food production behind it, that’s a wildly unsustainable claim.

That, however, has not stopped this man from continuing on with his silent protest or many others across the country from joining him.

The Star Spangled Banner may be this country’s anthem, but it was a poem written by Francis Scott Key. The American Revolution, when it was written, unified many – not all – American colonists to work towards a common goal: freedom from the British crown.

It is important to note that while fighting for the rights to determine their own destiny, many colonists were actively killing First Nation peoples and enslaving Africans.

I sang this song and said the pledge of allegiance every day in elementary school. These two elements were meant to cultivate a sense of patriotism.  They serve as a common baseline for working towards a common goal – team building, if you will.

As subtle as it may be, the repetition of the pledge and national anthem reinforces the ideas  within them that success and equality are guaranteed. It is part of the broader conversation in our culture that Kaepernick’s detractors are steeped in… it’s everywhere.

Kaepernick and those like him are – as the kids say these days – woke. Their acts of (civil) disobedience disrupt the flow of information that has done its best to indoctrinate them since birth.

This, however, does not mean they are any less part of the team.

Like all teams, there needs to be a variation of skill and competitiveness.

Try thinking of those (silently) protesting the injustice as your best all-star skater.

That all-star begins in a sparsely populated space – there are few who have the approach they do – but through their continuous demand that those around them improve, eventually find themselves in the company of others. They read the field beautifully and have edge work unlike anything we have ever seen, but by committing themselves before us to those things, they gift us the chance to catch up to them.

If you accept the United States’ motto, E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one), then the metaphor of team fits. The anthem here is a thing that unifies our national team, despite the various playing fields we inhabit in our day-to-day lives – and we can commit to supporting one another to rise up.

I would be remiss not to mention that our intersectional identities determine how much energy we have to compete in our daily bouts – supporting every player in every part of their lives allows every member of the team to bring their best.

Which brings me back to taking a knee when a teammate has fallen. We don’t ask what that person was doing just before they hit the floor. We don’t leave them there to fend for themselves when they are clearly in pain. We take a knee while the EMTs tend to them. The spectators don’t jeer at those taking a knee because the fallen is on the opposite team, they sit silently while the player is on the floor. When they stand up and give the a-okay wave, we cheer for them.

An athlete is a whole person. That is, they don’t suddenly leave their life experiences and lenses – through which they see the world – in the locker room. Their triumphs and challenges outside of their chosen sport is what built the foundation that allows them to be highly competitive in the first place.

It is time we stop treating athletes like vapid puppets and start treating them like people with a full range of emotions. The next time your favorite athlete takes a knee, do yourself a favor, remind yourself they are your teammate in the game of life. For just that one moment, lay down your defenses and believe them when they say something is woefully wrong here.

Support the whole person who – in that moment – is risking their personal safety and, for some, their livelihood. Even if you don’t agree, we must pause and acknowledge the bravery of those who dare challenge the status quo in front of thousands of people. That show of conviction – in a world of selfies and soundbites – deserves your respect.