Team Protests Don’t Work

By Jamal Murphy

In the wake of the Colin Kaepernick movement within professional and amateur sports, many athletes have sought to follow his socially conscious lead in some way, shape or form.

Some athletes have joined Kaepernick in kneeling during the national anthem, while others have chosen to stand with a fist in the air.

These acts of protest are attempts to exhibit self pride, show solidarity with and bring attention to the plight of African Americans in this country. Whether it be violent mistreatment by law enforcement or general slights and injustice in every day life, these are the issues that have sparked athlete protests.

A safer protest option has been the now popular team protest, which is not really a protest at all. It usually takes the form of a team standing together locking arms, holding hands or performing some other act intended to show physical togetherness.

This safe option, while usually well-intentioned, is also the least effective.

It is the individual acts of protest that have been met with the most vitriol from certain fans, organizations, media members and even a Supreme Court Justice. (Justice Ginsburg later retracted her harsh criticism of national anthem protests.)

The players taking these stands have been easy to identify and single out. The network television camera crews scan each sideline to see which players dare to risk incurring the ire of the “Trump crowd” (a large segment of NFL faithful), or dare to jeopardize their livelihood in general, as Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall and former Indianapolis Colts defensive back Antonio Cromartie discovered.

Marshall lost sponsorship deals from The Air Academy Federal Credit Union and CenturyLink because he knelt during the anthem. Cromartie was cut by the Colts after kneeling during the anthem in London earlier this month, though the Colts would no doubt argue that his forced departure was merely a coincidence.

These individual acts of protest are risky, but effective. They get some people extremely angry and instill great pride in others.

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The conversation cannot be avoided in these circumstances because the message is clear. The grievances of the athlete are recognized, begrudgingly or not, because it is understood that the player must feel deeply about the issue to risk the negative reaction that is sure to come his or her way.

Most importantly, it is the ultimate example of American patriotism to show the courage to stand up (or kneel down) for what one believes in, despite being in the minority.

Conversely, the team demonstrations that have become popular in the NFL and more recently in the NBA preseason, tend to have a different impact.

Indeed, the message is always neutral. It is meant to placate both sides. Its intention is to display a consensus when there likely is none.

Thus, we are left with no real message — the opposite of protest.

The team demonstration is usually a nod to the status quo that effectively chills any individual player’s want to protest. If a player has a strong opinion on an issue, he or she might be deterred from making any statement that would go against the “consensus.”

Recently, at the Brooklyn Nets’ preseason opener, their entire team stood with arms around each other during the national anthem. After the game, Nets’ point guard Jeremy Lin gave an unintentionally telling explanation of the purpose of their anthem demonstration.

“It shows that I think we all can acknowledge that there is an issue at hand, but how you go about that and really what we tried to do is arms around each other, solidarity, we’re doing it together,” Lin said.

Yes, it shows that the team may be together in some sense, but the issue acknowledged is blurry.

“This isn’t anti-cops, this country needs cops,” Lin continued. “This isn’t anti-minorities, this country needs minorities. We need both and we need more compassion; we need more sympathy, where guys can take the time to really put themselves in someone else’s shoes,” Lin concluded.

There is a reason that these team demonstrations ring so hollow; it is because one action or voice can rarely speak for everyone unless it is a vanilla statement that almost no one can disagree with.

The team demonstration passes the buck and proves disappointing to those who take these issues seriously.

An example is the recent Seattle Seahawks “fake out,” where it was rumored that the entire team would take a knee during the national anthem on September 11th. However, the team chose to stand with locked arms instead, in a supposed sign of unity.

Rather than a bold statement against injustice, what we got from the Seahawks was a Rodney King-esq “can’t we all just get along” plea that fell flat. Predictably and intentionally, this “protest” or demonstration was met with little resistance from the pro-police and racist elements in the crowd. At the same time, it was an extreme letdown for those at the other end of the spectrum, those eager for professional athletes and entertainers to take stands in the name of social justice.

When my wife heard the rumors that the Seahawks would all take a knee during the anthem, she teared up due to the magnitude of the potential moment. Needless to say, the arm-locking that took place instead elicited no such emotion.

Team work is great when it comes to winning games and championships, but it is not the best course for instigating much needed change or a conversation about it. Nor do teams need to be a monolith in order to be successful in competition. There are numerous examples of teams made up of players from different backgrounds with different opinions, that still have great chemistry on the field or court. So, preserving team chemistry is not a valid excuse for team consensus on social issues.

Therefore, athletes who seek to make a difference should avoid the security blanket of the team statement or demonstration and speak out individually to their heart’s content.

Or, say nothing, which is fine as well.

“If I were just to sit there before the anthem and [protest], I mean, anyone can do that. You can be fake and superficial, but we want to actually do something more and be more proactive about it,” Lin said about his desire to make a real difference.

The individual protest, or the silent one, is much less likely to be superficial than the team demonstration. Many athletes who have taken no outward stance have given much back to their communities, by building schools for example, such as the Seattle Seahawks’ Cliff Avril and the New York Mets’ Curtis Granderson.

Let’s save the feel-good team embraces, err “protests,” for better times.

Jamal Murphy is a contributor to CBS Local. He writes extensively about college basketball, the NBA and other sports, often focusing on the intersection of sports and social justice/awareness. Listen to Jamal on the Bill Rhoden On Sports podcast (iTunes & Soundcloud) that he cohosts with legendary sports columnist, Bill Rhoden. Email him at jmurphesq@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: @Blacketologist.

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