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Don’t Want to Kneel? Stand Up for Justice
Toyloy Brown III

Recently, I read that some high school athletes have been emulating the N.F.L pros by kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.

CNN reported the story of two Texas teenagers (who are cousins) protesting during the national anthem before their football game. Larry McCullough, 18, kneeled, and Cedric “CJ” Ingram Lewis raised a fist. The coach immediately told them to take off their uniforms – “pads, the pants and all, in front of everyone,” McCullough told CNN. He and his cousin said they were humiliated.

The coach, Ronnie Mitchem, who is a pastor, said that form of protest is a disrespect to the flag, but McCullough said that was not his intention. “It was really showing the injustice for black people. All the stuff that’s been going on in the N.F.L., stuff like that, so I feel like I need to be part of it, too.”

My High School’s Stance

I go to Cardinal Hayes HS in the Bronx, an all-boys school. Football is a big deal there. We won the city championship last year. At the time of this writing, we are 4-1, and during the last game we defeated Archbishop Stepinac, a top Catholic school in New York State, in blowout fashion with a score of 47-21.

I wanted to find out if there was a policy in place for our athletes and if they could choose whether or not to protest. I spoke to two of our football players, seniors Lucas Nuñez, a wide receiver, and Claude Watford, a defensive back. They both said the coaches hadn’t brought it up. “But if I had to guess, I think the coaches wouldn’t want us to kneel because they don’t think that our political beliefs should interfere with the team,” said Watford.

When I asked assistant coach Erle Ladson, he said nobody forces kids to say the pledge of allegiance and if someone chose to kneel in protest, he didn’t know if anything would happen. “The idea of social injustice is big in our community. As a school population of mostly minorities, it is important for us to be having this conversation,” he told me.

Distorting the Meaning

The controversy began in 2016, when Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, started kneeling during the national anthem to raise awareness about police brutality against blacks, among other racial injustices. It was an innovative way to force people to confront these issues. I thought his action was a great thing.

Then, before the N.F.L. season’s week three this year, President Donald Trump made inflammatory comments regarding the league and its players. He said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these N.F.L. owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b-tch off the field, right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired.”

Now that the protest has also become a response to Trump’s comments, I believe it has lost its original purpose. Kaepernick’s reason for kneeling—to raise awareness about the mistreatment of black people by some police—is being drowned out.

image by YC-Art Dept

Louisiana superintendent of schools Scott Smith is one of those who misunderstands the meaning of taking a knee. “It is a choice for students to participate in extracurricular activities, not a right, and we...feel strongly that our teams and organizations should stand in unity to honor our nation’s military and veterans,” he wrote in a letter obtained by The New York Times.

I don’t agree. Kneeling does not disrespect the flag, our anthem, or the military. They all stand for American values of freedom and equality. (Given that kneeling is a protest against discrimination, standing could even be interpreted as disrespect for those values.)

Focus On Injustice

Despite my support for fair treatment of black people, I think it would be better if athletes stopped kneeling. I don’t think that continuing to kneel is going to bring any more attention to Kaepernick’s initial intention. Whether to kneel or not kneel is taking us all away from the bigger issue. Instead, we should be thinking about how to address police mistreatment of black people.

A better course of action would be for players to put their money and efforts toward fighting racial injustice. Some players already do this but not enough. More could raise money to contribute to community organizations like BronxWorks and Red Hook Initiative that help those in poverty and promote equality. The N.F.L. itself should also support social justice groups.

It was a concrete step for the owners to recently meet with the players. According to ABC News, a focus of the meeting “was enhancing the players’ platforms for speaking out on social issues.”

Young people can also make a difference by working with local activist groups. These may not be the only answers, but they would be a step in the right direction.

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