Kent State students respond to NFL protests

From left, San Francisco 49ers’ Eli Harold (58), quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) and Eric Reid (35) kneel during the national anthem before their NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, Calif.

Scott Lendak

For most Americans, Sundays in fall mean one thing: football. It means they’ll get a chance to kick back, relax and cut the world off to spend their day watching their favorite team play. But for the past couple weeks, these Sundays have also brought something political:

Protest.

The national anthem protests first came under the national microscope last season when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat for the anthem before his team’s first three preseason games and took a knee for the fourth and final.

Kaepernick began protesting the anthem to not only raise awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement, but also to address the social injustices directed toward minorities in the United States.

“Reports that I have read suggest that those who initially made the choice to kneel did so to express their frustration with the lack of attention to the issues of police treatment of minorities and a feeling that they can no longer stand by and do nothing,” said associate professor of peace and conflict studies Karen Cunningham. “The act of kneeling was a way of speaking out and bringing attention to the issues.”

Kaepernick was convinced to kneel rather than sit after talking to former Seattle Seahawks player and Green Beret Nate Boyer. They agreed this would be a form of protest, but in a way that would be respectful to the flag and veterans of the military.

In total, six other players joined Kaepernick in kneeling for the national anthem in 2016.

The protests then gained a new meaning during Week 3 of the 2017 NFL season when President Donald Trump spoke on the issue.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired,’” the president said at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama.

After Trump’s comments, the league chose to join in unity to send a message back to the president.

Kent State students expressed their support for the protest.

“I was extremely proud to see guys exercise their right to the First Amendment,” said Marlon Ramirez, a junior biology major.  “It was cool to see them come together, not only in response to President Trump, but to raise awareness about the social injustices going on in the country.”

The Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t on the field during the national anthem, as they elected to stay in the locker room.

“When I first saw them do it, I was really shocked,” said Marcus Smith, a sophomore computer information systems major.  “I was really pleased that they used their platform to raise awareness and try to unify and take a stand against social injustices.”

One Steelers player didn’t stay in the locker room. 

Offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, a former captain in the Army and ex-Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan, stood in the tunnel with his hand over his heart as the anthem played.

“I understand why certain people hesitate to kneel, and that’s fine,” Ramirez said. “But I don’t understand why people get mad at the players kneeling. Veterans have died for us to be able to exercise our First Amendment, whether you choose to stand or kneel. There are even some current veterans who support this movement.”

Cunningham said people’s past experiences might dictate their reaction to protests.

“Symbolic acts are subject to interpretation,” she said. “If one sees kneeling during the national anthem as a sign of disrespect for the flag and the country and the veterans that have fought for freedom, they will react negatively, become angry and not care what the actual intended message was. In response to that criticism, some teams have now chosen to kneel prior to the anthem. And some were still booed by fans … which then raises the question of whether the anger is about disrespecting the anthem or the flag, or whether it goes deeper than that.”

However, Kent State students didn’t only voice their opinions; they also took a stand.

Several students kneeled on Risman Plaza to protest social injustices.

Students of different backgrounds and organizations took a knee for nearly two hours Thursday to show their frustration toward the current political climate.

“We’re here for many different reasons, but mostly it’s about justice,” said Nina Darden, a senior public health major and member of the Student Power Coalition.

The group, along with World of Kolored Empowerment (W.O.K.E.), came up with the idea of the “Take a Knee” demonstration just two days before the event.

Students held up signs inscribed with their reasons for kneeling, with causes ranging from protecting DACA students to racial discrimination.

“I think a lot of college students should support the movement because people our age need to be open-minded and look at both sides,” Ramirez said. “When they find out what this is really about, they will realize it isn’t about disrespecting veterans at all. This movement is no different than wearing pink to support the fight against breast cancer. It is to raise awareness about the issue.”

Smith said disrespecting the military isn’t the point of the protests. He said everyone who opposes those kneeling needs to take a closer look. 

“Instead of immediately getting offended, people should take a second to actually hear them out and try to understand the message,” Smith said. “I’m sure that the guys who are kneeling have family and friends that have served. So I’m sure disrespecting the military is the last thing they want to do.” 

Smith, who played football in high school, said he wasn’t sure if he would kneel on the field, but he would at least think about it.

“If I was still playing high school football, I would at least think about kneeling,” Smith said. “I’d have to talk to my parents beforehand though. Making that statement outside the NFL is different because there is way less media involvement and people would bottle it up.”

Cunningham said both sides need to have a discussion before any real change takes place.

“Each side feels that they are right,” she said. “But they appear to be talking about completely different issues. The intended message appears to have been lost … A dialogue needs to happen that addresses the real underlying concerns.”

Scott Lendak is a sports reporter. Contact him at [email protected]

Tierra Thomas contributed to the reporting for this article. Contact her at [email protected]