What if NFL players return to kneeling at games in 2020 season?

Nearly four years ago Colin Kaepernick began sitting and later kneeling during the national anthem before NFL games.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said in 2016. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Kaepernick’s protest rocked the league. The country too. Kneeling became a regular issue for then-candidate Donald Trump to use on the presidential campaign trail. He found plenty of support, since the anthem and the flag remain cherished by many. He relentlessly blasted the players (“son of a bitch!”) and the NFL itself (“total disrespect for our great country!”) to thunderous applause among supporters.

The league was never comfortable in the middle of the firestorm. It flailed about on how to handle player protests. First it allowed it. Then sent the players to the locker room. Then they came back out. Then almost everyone knelt. Then they didn’t. It was a disaster.

Eventually money was allocated to social justice initiatives, the tactic of kneeling faded out and, of course, Kaepernick never played another down. Nothing was settled. NFL team owners, according to former NFL vice president Joe Lockhart, believed Kaepernick was “bad for business.”

Houston wide receiver Kenny Stills kneels during the national anthem before a September game in 2019. (Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports)

In the short-term, they may have been correct. Kaepernick, fair or not, was and remains a polarizing figure in what is an incredibly polarized nation. It took a long time for the NFL to recapture its television audience.

Now what?

What if, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis Police custody, there is a widespread return of players kneeling during the anthem? Or some other action? And what if this time, it’s some (or even many) white teammates who are joining them?

What does the NFL do this time, especially right back in the middle of an election season when Trump’s heated response is fairly predictable?

“Colin Kaepernick became the symbol of black men being treated differently than white men in America,” Lockhart said.

What’s the position of NFL franchise owners this time?

History is almost assuredly going to look back favorably on Kaepernick. The Kaepernick critics won’t want to hear that, but these kinds of issues are often about having the clearest narrative. Initially Kaepernick didn’t have it, or didn’t always articulate it. Shouting that well-paid athletes playing a game should stand and honor the military, as critics argued, did.

Going forward, as the details fade and the focus narrows, he likely will. Kaepernick’s sock choices will be forgotten. Generations will fade. It’s like that with any social movement. Kaepernick was on the side of equality. He was on the side of progress.

This is 2020, not 2016. The NFL is different. It is always different. The league turns over quickly. The ages remain the same (mostly early 20s). The perspectives don’t.

It’s not a coincidence that the reaction to Floyd’s death has been far greater and far more diverse than before. Players appear less willing to fall for the distraction of looters, who should be condemned but not allowed to change the topic. They don’t sound scared of any backlash, and not just established stars with nothing to lose such as Tom Brady or J.J. Watt.

“The black community needs our help,” said Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, 23. “They have been unheard for far too long. Open your ears, listen, and speak. This isn’t politics. This is human rights.”

“Institutional racism in this country breaks my heart and needs to stop,” said Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz, 27. “Can’t even fathom what the black community has to endure on a daily basis.”

“I’m siding with my brothers that deal, and continuously deal, with things I will never experience,” said Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, 20, and the likely No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft. “The injustice is clear. And so is the hate. It can no longer be explained away. If you’re still ‘explaining’ it – check your heart and ask why?”

That’s three white quarterbacks from small-town America.

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz spoke out on the nation's need to eradicate racism. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz spoke out on the nation's need to eradicate racism. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The season is still months away, but a sizable number of NFL players from differing backgrounds appear engaged and motivated to do something, say something, stand for something.

Maybe they’ll bring back kneeling. Maybe it’ll be something else. Maybe it’ll be just words. There is no telling right now.

The world will be watching though. So will Trump. How will the NFL react this time?

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