Joshua Perry is an outside linebacker on the Indianapolis Colts' practice squad. He agreed to write a guest column for Bleacher Report articulating how players came to kneel during the national anthem, and why they choose to do so.
I think we all know what's going on here.
Over the course of the last season-and-a-half, many NFL players have taken part in protests during the playing of the national anthem. What began as a mode of civil disobedience made popular by Colin Kaepernick has taken on new momentum in the past few weeks.
Originally, kneeling during the anthem was one man's way to use his platform to draw attention to the extrajudicial executions of black folks at the hands of police officers. Lately, other NFL players (and owners) have done it to protest and show solidarity against certain politics and a tweeting president.
And through this evolution, I think—rather, I know—we have lost control of the narrative and the true meaning of why Colin first decided to kneel.
We saw what happened with Colin (and his career) last season. And even through an offseason during which policy unjustly killed more black men, I think fans had their minds made up that football wasn't going to be the time or the place to let a bunch of millionaire athletes that have no idea about what oppression is protest.
Some players still had different ideas.
The season started with protests of varying execution and origin. They were met with applause from some, and booing, name-calling and jeers from many others. In the first two-and-a-half weeks of the season, President Donald Trump made it clear that he didn't support players kneeling. He unleashed a couple of tweet-storms letting America know the flag, anthem or military wasn't to be disrespected at the hands of some football players. He hijacked a narrative and recreated it to reflect his own views and neglect the original reason for the protests.
Players were boiling, but up to that point, it was still strictly a player issue. It hadn't yet reached the owners. However, in one speech, Trump turned protesting from a player issue to an NFL issue.
During the speech, he suggested owners should yank any kneeling "son of a bitch" from the field and punctuated it with his signature "you're fired." Mere hours later, teams around the NFL condemned Trump's words.
For the first time, the NFL was united in protest.
But in taking a stand against the president, the NFL managed to hijack the protest one of its players started, altering it for good.
Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017
Teams across the league decided to make a point.
Coaches and owners gave players the OK to go ahead and protest. Owners who had donated to the man that had just questioned their power and decision-making were now linking arms with players during the anthem to spite him. Players who had previously felt compelled to kneel for Kap's causes were now kneeling against Trump's.
In my locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium, I walked in wondering what we were going to do. Players were buzzing about our options leading up to game day. I spoke with a couple of guys I played with when I was with the Chargers, and they echoed a lot of what was heard here. The discussions about what we should do, although helpful, resonated differently with some players versus others. Some didn't get the point or understand the movement. Others were bitter because of personal experience.
But from top to bottom, a common thread was that a statement was necessary. As pregame prep continued, we had seen pictures from the early kickoff in London, where it seemed nearly half of each sideline was on a knee. We wanted to know what our move was going to be. Do we link arms? Kneel? Link arms with the other team? Players were eager to make a statement.
After we finished team intros and lined up for the anthem, it felt like all eyes were on us. I think every fan in the stadium knew what was going to happen, and we were just waiting for the moment.
As the PA announcer completed his pre-anthem script, we locked arms as a team. A murmur broke out across the stadium. Some of us dropped to a knee, and the crowd erupted in boos. The noise filled the arena, with some fans heckling us even after the anthem was over.
I felt bitterness at first, then confusion. How could people boo us for making a statement against things we all know are wrong? When the anthem ended, I was proud of the unity being shown, but I knew we had lost almost any ability to address the injustices that kneeling was supposed to represent.
By this point, everybody was locked back in. There was a game to play. After the game concluded, guys in the locker room talked about it. There was a common feeling of anger and bitterness. Similarly common was the feeling of pride and strength of actually owning our moment. And many of us knew that even though we weren't kneeling, our moment probably wasn't through.
The next week started with a media cycle that played images and commentary of the protests almost nonstop. We heard it all, from commend these players, coaches and owners for taking a stand to these cowards should be thankful for their opportunity, instead of spitting in America's face!
By the end of the week, there were some hot takes, but most of the news cycle had shifted elsewhere. We saw a weekend of NFL football that didn't make as nearly as much noise as the previous one. The players who typically protested, protested. And many of those who didn't, didn't (save for some linked arms here and there). I believe most of us expected to return to what had been normal Sunday decorum for the last season or so—no extravagant, orchestrated shows of politics surrounding the anthem.
Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017
It was a special day at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Colts honored Peyton Manning during our game against the San Francisco 49ers. At halftime, there was a special ceremony highlighting his legend and retiring his number. It was a day that made football history and will not soon be forgotten.
Traffic was a little thick coming into the stadium, which I assumed was due to Manning's celebration. In the locker room before the game, one of my teammates told me Vice President Mike Pence was going to be in attendance. Since he was the former governor of Indiana, I didn't think twice about him coming, and I expected a pretty pedestrian day in that regard.
As we entered the sideline pregame, we got lined up for the anthem. The team locked arms, which was met by a light hiss and a couple of boos from the crowd. We played the game, going into overtime and winning. It was an exciting, albeit typical, Sunday.
After Coach Pagano was finished delivering his remarks, I checked my Twitter feed.
I was stunned.
I was reading tweet after tweet about how the VP walked out of our game because he didn't want to "dignify" the "disrespect" that was going on. I was truly wowed. But as the cogs started turning, I couldn't help but feel like it was a stunt.
Curious, I asked some of my teammates, and they felt the same way. It was too convenient that he would end up in his home state the weekend that the Colts played the 49ers, the team that pioneered kneeling during the anthem. And when we found out Trump directed him to leave if there was any "disrespect" going on, it made all too much sense.
As one of my teammates said: Of all the things going on in America, to have the VP make a stunt like this at the game was outrageous. Most everyone else shrugged it off as another instance of Trump and his boys trying to flex their muscles.
As a result, a new and distracting narrative was created. The very people who had condemned football players for using football as a political platform just used football as a political platform. Players were pissed off. We were so hot because we felt we were protesting for a good cause, and the VP and president pulling a stunt like this was just ignorant. But in all of our anger, we failed to realize our message was lost long ago.
In a day and age where it's so easy to create and push content, it's easy to start a movement. In the same breath, it's just as easy for that movement to have its narrative recreated, both by folks within and otherwise. That's the thing with our protests. They've lost some of their direction lately among players, and the meaning has been lost among football fans and some members of the news media.
There is a thought that protests are against the flag and anthem directly, and therefore are anti-American. There is also a stigma that players who protest are spoiled, ungrateful or out of touch. Neither of these are the reality.
Civil disobedience is a very American thing and has been a driving factor in many movements of the past. Protesting players are often in touch. Many come from humble beginnings and have lived a different reality, often as a big, scary-looking minority. We are in touch with the struggles of American people facing oppression in some ways, but it's often overshadowed by how we are glorified for our financial gains.
As a player, it is frustrating to see something that was done in good conscience become villainized. It's bothersome to be told how to feel or what to say. It's a shame that our ideas are sometimes marginalized because we are only respected for our athletic abilities and not our intellectual prowess. It's also disappointing to see how quickly folks are willing to look away from the real issues that sparked these protests and look to a false and misguided narrative that allows you to take comfort in ignoring the issues.
But as a player, I also realize there must be a more effective way to reach a fanbase and bring attention and, hopefully, a solution to the injustice out there. People obviously value us, but in a manufactured narrative about respect for country, military and flag, we are on the losing end. Fans will listen to our words so long as they're not drowned out by perceived disrespect.
In the media and on social platforms, we can push information and stories that are meaningful. Sure, some folks will tell you to stick to sports, but most will listen and spark discussion about these topics. Our ability to use our voice—talking about cases of injustice, as well as good work being done in the community—is important.
It starts with first educating ourselves. It continues with us taking the lead in our communities. We must be the ones who spend our time with the people we want to impact. We must be willing to create structures that yield results. We must write and control our own narratives. Once we do these things, others will follow.
The protests shocked many. Athletes are now being seen in a new light. People are pissed off and emotional about topics they've never given thought to before. Voices that have never been heard are now being heard through the silent demonstration of players for three minutes a week.
To me, continuing to protest is a must. But continuing in the same fashion is an obstacle. The meaning has been lost, and it's now more about a tweeting president or picking sides or (a lack) of patriotism or partisan politics, instead of uniting and uplifting.
We must be unapologetic and stern. We must be united and active. Most importantly, we must drive our narratives so we can complete our objectives and decide for ourselves whether our current form of protest is the best way to achieve that.
Follow Joshua on Twitter: @RIP_JEP.