At a forum on social justice at the Super Bowl last month, Miami Dolphins defensive back Michael Thomas acknowledged a regret about the movement he and other NFL players have helped lead over the past two seasons.
“We made a mistake by addressing the [national] anthem and the military part of it,” Thomas said. “We should have kept it about systemic oppression. Never allow them to hijack that conversation.”
The forum at which Thomas appeared in suburban Minneapolis was sponsored by an organization called RISE. The R in that acronym stands for Ross – Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. RISE is the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality.
So Ross’ comments Monday about protests during the national anthem (along with his subsequent clarification) were ironic for all of the wrong reasons. Ross fell into the trap Thomas mentioned. Whether on purpose or inadvertently, the Dolphins owner allowed “them” to hijack the conversation.
“Initially, I totally supported the players in what they were doing,” Ross told the New York Daily News on Monday. “It’s America and people should be able to really speak about their choices.” Then, according to the Daily News, he changed his mind when the protests were interpreted as a slight against “support of our country or the military.”
“When that message changed, and everybody was interpreting it as that was the reason, then I was against kneeling.”
He added that “All our players will be standing” this coming season.
It came across as an edict from above: kneeling doesn’t work and it won’t be tolerated.
Ross amended his comments Tuesday, saying he wouldn’t force anyone to stand: “I’m passionate about the cause of social justice and I feel that kneeling is an ineffective tactic that alienates more people than it enlists.”
Ross, of all NFL owners, should know better.
If Colin Kaepernick had decided to merely post his feelings on Instagram, none of the NFL millions that have been delegated to social and cultural causes in the name of equality would have been spent. The owners were brought to the table in part because they did not like the kneeling. They were made uncomfortable by it, which is exactly why it was effective. The kneeling was never about the military. Repeat: it was never about the military. It was about drawing attention to police brutality and racial injustice. That attention was ultimately drawn to the right place is because the players brought their message directly to owners like Ross.
Now, there were many Americans who took offense to the protests because they saw them as an attack on the military. That’s understandable. But that’s what Thomas is speaking of when he voiced his regret that the mission of the protests was hijacked.
Ross’ comments, and his clarification, made that problem only worse. He may have tried to echo Thomas by saying the message of kneeling had become hijacked, but what emerged was a white flag. What Ross said was “kneeling is an ineffective tactic that alienates more people than it enlists.” A more effective message would’ve been “kneeling by itself is an ineffective tactic that alienates more people than it enlists.”
Kneeling was never the be-all, end-all of the movement. The leaders of the protests, from Kaepernick to Malcolm Jenkins to Chris Long to Thomas, have all spent thousands of hours in the community or in front of civic leaders or donating their money, or all of the above. They weren’t protesting without a greater plan or purpose. Just look at Dolphins’ wide receiver Kenny Stills, who rented an RV and traveled across the South for everything from learning about prison reform to attending a women’s march to speaking to high school classes.
Yes, kneeling can alienate, but it’s up to people like Ross to clarify and amplify the true mission for those who are skeptical. Just like those who say NBA player should “shut up and dribble,” there are many who want NFL protesters to shut up and play. That’s where a powerful titan of business like Ross can raise his own voice and say, “Listen to the message of the kneeling; don’t just deride the act.” But instead of clarifying or contending, he conceded the point.
This entire episode underscores the difficulty of what NFL players are trying to accomplish. Ross is one of the league’s leading advocates of social justice – it’s right there in the name of his initiative – and yet he is unwilling to fully push back against a narrative that has been used to deride and diminish a movement in the name of equality. (A spokesman for RISE declined comment on Tuesday.)
Ross made his initial comments at a ceremony in his honor put on by the Jackie Robinson Foundation. “I cannot salute the flag;” Robinson famously wrote toward the end of his life. “I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
There is nothing un-American about that sentiment, just as there is nothing un-American about Jackie Robinson. You can be a grateful citizen and a patriot in this country and still kneel during the anthem. It’s a shame that we are still debating that point many years after Robinson has passed away.
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