With more than half of the 2017 NFL season in the books, there seem to be a few things that all fans can agree on: The Green Bay Packers are only an average team (at best) without the services of the injured quarterback Aaron Rodgers; Houston Texans’ rookie DeShaun Watson appears to be a legitimate franchise quarterback; and the winless Cleveland Browns will likely not be making the playoffs again this year.
But there is at least one aspect of the NFL season that has not leant itself to widespread consensus and unity, including among Catholics: player demonstrations during the pregame national anthem.
The demonstrations, which began with then-San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick sitting out The Star-Spangled Banner before an August 2016 preseason game in silent protest of police killings of unarmed black men, have now developed into a leaguewide phenomenon.
Any given Sunday, you can find players from nearly every team sitting, kneeling, raising a fist, linking arms or otherwise demonstrating during the national anthem. Most of the players are black, but increasingly their white teammates are joining them.
Given the dynamics at play — America’s most patriotic symbol, its favorite national sport and its original sin — the demonstrations have unsurprisingly become a game of political football.
President Donald Trump piled onto the fray when he said that if a player doesn’t stand for the national anthem, the team owner should fire “that son of a b----.” The president also encouraged fans to boycott games when protests occur, advice that Vice President Mike Pence followed through on when he walked out of an NFL game in early October after players knelt during the anthem.
Most polls reveal that a slight majority of Americans are not supportive of the demonstrations, though a sizable minority back them. Like the general population, a difference of opinion can be found among U.S. Catholic leaders.
Respectful or Insulting?
Most Catholics agree that racism is an ongoing problem in America, a reality reflected in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ recent creation of the Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.
Father John Raphael is among them. But the Diocese of Nashville priest doesn’t believe player protests during the national anthem are the right way to address the problem.
Father Raphael, who is black, calls the NFL player demonstrations “intentionally insulting.”
“People with different and diverse views come to sports games to be united,” he said. “These protests put a thumb in their eye.”
Other Catholic commentators have said the demonstrations, which occur as The Star-Spangled Banner is played and attendees customarily stand with their hands on their hearts, are an insult to the U.S. armed forces, who risk their lives to defend American values. Evangelist and biblical scholar Jeff Cavins, for instance, posted a picture on his Facebook account of a veteran with an amputated leg, captioned: “What taking a knee for your country actually looks like.”
Furthermore, some say the demonstrations, directed at the flag, inappropriately imply that racism is a defining element of America.
“Protesting injustice is an admirable thing,” said Stephen White, a fellow in Catholic studies at the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Denouncing this nation as a ‘country that oppresses black people and people of color,’ as Colin Kaepernick has, is itself an injustice.”
But Catholic supporters of the demonstrations, like EWTN radio host Gloria Purvis, point out that the participating players have gone out of their way to conduct themselves in a respectful manner.
“Most criticisms discount the players who’ve said their intent is not disrespect,” said Purvis, who is the chairwoman of Black Catholics United for Life. “They disregard the players who’ve credited the military as one of the reasons they can protest [in the first place].”
San Francisco 49er safety Eric Reid, for instance, wrote in a New York Times op-ed this September about his reasons for joining Kaepernick in his protests last year. Reid detailed how the players consulted Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret, to make sure their protests were respectful. He says they decided to kneel instead of sit, “because it’s a respectful gesture,” like “a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”
“It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel,” wrote Reid, a practicing Christian. “We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite.”
The difference between kneeling and sitting is relevant to Msgr. Stuart Swetland, the president of Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a former Naval officer, Msgr. Swetland says kneeling can be seen as a sign of both “penance and respect.”
Either way, Msgr. Swetland sees the protests as the fruits of the values he swore to defend as a member of the military.
“I’m thinking the system works [when I see these demonstrations],” he said. “That’s the kind of right that I pledged to support and defend.”
Purvis believes that players aren’t kneeling because they oppose what America stands for, but “because [they] believe America is not living up to her values regarding the human person, specifically persons of color.” She says she has experienced racism in her own life so the importance of the issue is clear to her, but she understands why other Catholics might not initially see it that way.
“If one inserted the phrase ‘[killing] innocent unborn lives’ in place of ‘racial injustice,’ one can perhaps relate to the players’ desire to do something to raise awareness.”
Other criticisms of the demonstrations have focused less on their method and more on their time and place: namely, at a private stadium before tens of thousands of fans who’ve come to see football, not politics.
“These are cheap protests,” said Father Raphael, who argues that they don’t cost participants much and take advantage of a captive audience. He believes that demonstrations against racial injustice are legitimate, but that they should take place in the appropriate public venue and should be directed at lawmakers and those responsible for making changes — not at fans who’ve paid a pretty price to enjoy an afternoon of football.
“These protests hijack the event at hand and take advantage of the people who came there to see a game,” he said. “There’s something boorish [about the demonstrations]. They are the height of bad taste.”
Jesuit Father James Schall, professor emeritus at Georgetown University, expressed a similar position in an op-ed for The Hill entitled, “With NFL Protest, Americans Misunderstand Both Sports and Politics.”
Father Schall argues that sports should be watched and enjoyed for their own sake. Introducing politics into the mix corrupts both.
“There should be a wall of separation between state and sports, for the good of both,” he wrote. “The state’s function is to ensure an arena where things that are none of its business can go on.”
Msgr. Swetland agrees that partisan politics and the government shouldn’t intervene in an NFL game. But eliminating politics, considered more generally as questions of how we live our life together, doesn’t seem feasible. Msgr. Swetland cites how Jesse Owens’ presence at the 1936 Berlin Olympics or Jackie Robinson’s presence and success as the first black player in Major League Baseball in 1947 played a role in societal change, despite not being overt political statements.
Furthermore, he sees demonstrations during the anthem in protest of racism not necessarily as political positions, but moral ones, which never have a bye week.
“We need to live an integrated life,” he said. “We can’t bracket things and say we don’t have to worry about morality and justice in certain situations.”
Gauging the anthem demonstrations’ effectiveness in reaching their aims is difficult precisely because the aim of the protest has grown less clear.
For instance, in Week 3, after President Trump began his criticism of the demonstrations and the players involved, more players than usual sat or kneeled during the anthem; in some cases, entire teams linked arms as a show of unity. And just this past week, 40 players from the Houston Texans kneeled after an ESPN story revealed that the team owner, Bob McNair, had referred to protesting players as “inmates run[ning] the prison” in a recent owners’ meeting on the issue.
While both cases had high numbers of players joining in the demonstrations, it’s not clear whether those players joined to protest racial injustice or the comments made by Trump and McNair, respectively.
Furthermore, Purvis believes that the politicization of the demonstrations has drawn attention away from a discussion about racial injustice and focused it instead on the etiquette (or lack thereof) of protesting during the national anthem.
“It is unfortunate that we have lost sight of the original issue,” she said.
But White believes that has more to do with the nature of the protests themselves than anything else.
“Protests directed toward the flag [or other patriotic expressions] almost always lose themselves in their own scandal,” he said, noting that these sorts of actions are almost always construed as ones of defiance and impiety, even if that’s not the original intention.
Father Raphael says that the demonstrations have failed to start a national conversation about racial injustice because they impose a “for-or-against false dichotomy.”
“These protests shut down debate,” he said. “I don’t see how, in any way shape or form, this is supposed to foster legitimate conversation. That conversation is obscured by the provocative nature of the protests.”
But Purvis believes that the demonstrations “are making a difference, albeit one on a long journey,” and she says she respects players who are using their unique platform to draw attention to an issue they care about deeply.
In addition to whether or not the national anthem demonstrations are appropriate or effective, Catholics might also have questions about the moral content of such actions.
Racism is clearly abhorred by the Church, but the Catechism also emphasizes the importance of having appropriate reverence for one’s nation. Do protests during the anthem — no matter how just their cause — cross a moral line?
“The action itself is not intrinsically evil,” says Msgr. Swetland, who has a licentiate in moral theology. “We have to look at intent.”
According to Msgr. Swetland, if protests are done in an effort to build the common good or to protect one’s conscience from participating in something he doesn’t agree with, they are an appropriate action. It’s when protests are done with an intent to disrespect or cause scandal that they become morally problematic.
The moral content of anthem demonstrations has additional aspects to consider when occurring in high school sports, which has been a growing trend.
Catholic schools have varied stances on the issue. Although some Catholic high schools allow their players to kneel or otherwise demonstrate during the anthem, others have strict policies in place that restrict players from doing anything but standing.
In these cases, Msgr. Swetland says, players have the additional moral duty to respect the wishes of their appropriate authorities.
The national anthem protests and the maelstrom they’ve generated are yet another battleground for an increasingly divided nation. While it’s unclear if the demonstrations have changed any opinions on racial injustice, they have changed how many Americans view the NFL: Nearly a quarter of Americans said they planned to boycott the NFL over anthem demonstrations in a recent poll.
And those polling numbers are already being backed up in reality. Much to the chagrin of NFL owners, TV ratings are considerably lower than last year, and attendance is down.
But the anthem demonstrations appear likely to continue. At October’s NFL owners’ meeting, there was no consensus that owners would make standing for the anthem a requirement of employment for players going forward.
And while the anthem protests might not be good for the NFL as a business, Purvis believes that they are a good omen for the U.S. as a nation striving to live up to her values of respect and equal treatment under the law.
“Wanting and expecting more in terms of racial justice, in my opinion, is a sign of hope that we can do better.”
Register correspondent Jonathan Liedl writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.