The Tragic Incoherence of the NFL Protests

It has become a sort of reflex to object to the National Football League’s players’ bended knee/sitting through the National Anthem—while also conceding that their complaints have merit.

But do they?

To answer that question, one would have to know precisely what the protests are about. But so far the various reasons advanced are both confused and without much merit. That is why the players will eventually stand for the anthem before their tragic incoherence loses them both their fans and their jobs with it.

Inordinate Police Brutality Against the African-American Community?
While there certainly have been a large number of well-publicized shootings of African-American suspects, statistics do not bear out, as alleged, a supposed wave of police violence against black unarmed suspects. Is the anger then directed at regrettable though isolated iconic incidents but not at prevailing trends?

White police officers are more than 18 times more likely to be shot by African-Americans than white police officers are to shoot unarmed black suspects. Does anyone care?

In absolute numbers, more white suspects were shot yearly by police than were black suspects. Given respective crime rates and the frequency of relative encounters with police, black suspects were not statistically more likely to be victims of police violence than were whites.

Given the topics of race, crime, and violence, the frequency of black-on-white crime versus white-on-black crime—depending on the particular category—while comparatively rare, is still widely disproportionate, by a factor of 7 to 10.

Roughly 40-50 percent of all reported U.S. arrests for various violent crime involve teen or adult African-American males, who make up about 4-5 percent of the population. Blacks are well over 20 times more likely to be shot and killed by other blacks than by police officers.

The Left often does not pay much attention to such facts—though it grows angry when others do. Or to the extent progressives acknowledge these asymmetries, they contextualize the alarming frequency of inordinate black male crime, and the police response to it, by citing the legacy of slavery and claiming contemporary racism as well as police and judicial bias.

But such rationalization is largely academic.

The general public—and by extension the NFL fan base of all racial backgrounds—feels these imbalances to be true and, in their own lives—fairly or not—make adjustments about where they live, put their children in school, or travel. The antennae of wealthy, virtue-signaling white liberals are the most sensitive to crime disparities; the latter are also the most likely to have the desire and wherewithal to navigate around them. The makeup of elite neighborhoods and prep schools of Washington, D.C., is a testament to that unspoken fact.

It is certainly true that black males, regrettably, may be watched or stopped by police with greater frequency than Latino, Asian, or white males tend to be; but arguably not in a disproportionate fashion when seen in light of the data of those arrested and convicted of crimes.

Such proclivities, while again regrettable, are due less to racism than to statistically based preemptive policing—or statistically-based (and therefore rational) police fears.

Colin Kaepernick’s protests allegedly focusing on inordinate racially biased police brutality had no statistical basis in fact. To the extent his argument was logically presented, the irate NFL fan base rejected it.

Racial Disparity Attributable to Institutionalized Prejudice?
Were the players then frustrated about general racial disparities in landscapes beyond their own privileged positions? That larger question of why African-Americans have not yet statically achieved the same level of education, income, and family stability as the majority is more complex.

The exegeses usually break down politically. The Left feels that inequality of result is almost entirely due to racism and the inability of the government to provide financial reparations for past exploitation and legal protections to address ongoing bias.

The Right believes that what explains greater black disparity, in a variety of areas vis-à-vis the Asian-American, Latino-American, or white communities, are differing cultural attitudes toward family unity, education, and criminal behavior. The government, to the extent it can alter cultural assumptions, has largely acerbated the crisis through entitlements that reward conduct not conducive to achieving parity with other groups.

There are other disparate statistics that suggest race is not necessarily the bellwether criterion for ensuring a long, happy, and productive life. The white suicide rate is about three times higher than the African-American suicide rate, for example.

Asian-Americans on average have a higher income than do whites, despite a history of experiencing racism in the United States, from the Chinese exclusionary immigration laws to the Japanese internment.

The point is not to dismiss the unique historical ordeal of African-Americans, but rather to suggest that a majority of Americans does not any longer believe race is destiny, much less that being “white” governs one’s fate, especially at a time when intermarriage and integration are at an all-time high, and when the white working classes are increasingly disengaged from and at odds with the bicoastal white elite class. In other words, working-class white people often have much more in common with working-class blacks than they do with elite whites.

Furor at President Trump’s Intemperate “SOB” Comment?
Were the players instead reacting to Donald Trump’s outburst?

Certainly, it is understandable to be angry when the president of the United States directed his animus (supercharged with the unnecessarily profane “son of a bitch”) at a particular athlete (singular): “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. He’s fired!’”

It is true that the refusal to stand for the anthem peaked after the president’s comment. But here again, there are a number of reasons why the protests against an intemperate president still seem incoherent.

Obviously, the president of the United States will support the country’s tradition of respecting the flag. If the commander-in-chief is indifferent to iconic patriotic ceremonies, then who would not be?

Second, Trump’s SOB remark was directed nominally at an individual (“somebody”), and perhaps by inference Colin Kaepernick rather than, as reported, in the plural at a collective. His profanity was also regrettable, but past presidential vulgarity did not spark commensurate NFL protests.

Trump’s expletive perhaps was not as crude as Barack Obama’s writing off the millions of the Tea Party movement as “tea-baggers,” which refers to a graphic homosexual act. (“That helped to create the tea-baggers and empowered that whole wing of the Republican Party to where it now controls the agenda for the Republicans,” he said.)

Obama’s delivery may have often sounded mellifluous, but his message was sometimes crass and cruel and did not earn much rebuke—such as his past joke about the Special Olympics, or his us-versus-them advice to Latinos (“If Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, ‘We’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends’”), or his racial stereotyping of his own grandmother (“But she is a typical white person . . . ”), or his disdain for entire groups of people (“they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”)

For all his profanity, Trump would be facing impeachment charges had he written off the players, Obama-style, as “typical black people,” “tea-baggers,” or bitter clingers who express their racism to vent their own failures.

“White Privilege”?
Were the multimillionaire players angry about “white privilege”?

The term was not in wide circulation until the Obama era, when it caught fire on campuses and with pundits on left-wing cable news outlets to denote the impossibility of obtaining parity, given the intrinsic “stacked deck” of white America. But the entire white privilege trope has proved incoherent for a variety of obvious reasons.

First, we are a half-century out from the Civil Rights era, and an entire generation of middle-class Americans has grown up in the era of affirmative action, not Jim Crow. Most young people on campuses and applying for state and federal jobs naturally assume it is an advantage to have a minority cachet, and a clear disadvantage to be a white male. If that perception was not true, we would not see those of mixed heritages using accent marks or compound names to accentuate, for example, their Latino ethnicity, in fear that it was not immediately apparent or not sufficiently emphasized to resonate ethnic bona fides (for example, California State Senate leader Kevin de León, born Kevin Alexander Leon), etc.

Second, in a multiracial society in which perhaps a quarter of the population is of mixed ancestry, what exactly is “white”?—half-Egyptian/half-Irish? One-quarter-Japanese/one quarter-German/half-Latino? If we cannot accurately define “white” other than through DNA badges or antebellum Southern racist laws, how then can we define white privilege?

In a complex multiracial America, class increasingly trumps race. Are we to think multimillionaire African-American football players or black CNN anchors have less “privilege” than white unemployed coal miners in West Virginia or tree trimmers in southern Michigan or Tulare County, California?

Privilege always exists, of course, and in many cases, it is “white elite privilege”—which only makes more problematic the sloppy generic notion of “white privilege.” Are we to trust that the Silicon Valley scion who has his dad call up Stanford to ease his admission, and who once on campus rehearses the politically correct mantras of the day, has anything in common with the son of a white baker from Elko, Nevada?

Too often, wealthy white people in the press, politics, and academia mouth their furor over “white privilege” to virtue signal, to seek exemption from their own clear class privilege, and to express a coded disdain for the white working class, which lacks the romanticism of the masses and chic culture of the elite.

Pro-football players cannot define white privilege, and to the extent they can it is because of familiarity with other highly paid elites that self-identify as white, not with the millions of the white working and unemployed classes who ironically enjoy watching the NFL and find its racial make-up incidental to their essential love of the sport and admiration for those who play it.

The First Amendment?
Are the players kneeling to remind us of the sanctity of the First Amendment?

Hardly. The right of unfettered free speech has always been adjudicated in the courts by the allowance of limits on expression in the workplace.

Airline pilots cannot wear “Make America Great Again” hats if the airlines have contractual rules against political expression while at work. Police officers cannot demand to wear t-shirts and jeans in lieu of uniforms. UPS drivers can certainly be forbidden from wearing FedEx wristbands while driving or honking at friends they pass on the road.

The NFL players are free not to stand for the National Anthem, not because such a snub is protected by the First Amendment and they wish to emphasize that fact, but because for political reasons the NFL in fear has decided not to enforce a rule in its game operations manual—on the assumption that it is in the league’s short-term financial interest to ignore its own protocols.

When it becomes clear in the long-term that kneeling during the anthem alienates fans and loses the NFL hundreds of millions of dollars, then the owners mysteriously will make the necessary adjustments.

The league’s likely second-thoughts on standing during the National Anthem will have as little to do with the First Amendment as did its original response to respect the players’ gesture.

The idea of multimillionaire professional athletes—as part of the 0.01 percent of the nation’s income earners, in a meritocratic but quite un-diverse league made up of 75 percent black players—refusing to stand for the National Anthem out of anger at their country, racial unfairness, the president, or history is nonsensical.

Are the players betting that NFL fans do not care about a time-honored national practice or agree that they and their country are racist, or that they now think the NFL should be a showcase for political theater, or that about 200 protesting players are so uniquely talented in a nation of 320 million people that they are indispensable and could not be replaced, or that fans have nothing to do on weekends but to watch a politicized NFL?

For NFL athletes not to stand for the National Anthem is about as logical as it would be for ice hockey players or NASCAR drivers to take a knee in a potpourri protest over their own anger at American shortcomings, or racial disparities in the murdering of police officers, or the methamphetamine epidemic that strikes whites inordinately, or inordinate white suicide rates or disproportionate black-on-white crime rates—and then expect any insulted fan to continue to watch such incoherence.


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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.