It was the same scene, with slight variation, playing out in every stadium, and it defined the NFL weekend: players standing along the sideline during the national anthem, sometimes with their coach, sometimes with their owner, linked arm-in-arm.
If it was the most common protest, it was also the least effective—if you can even call it a protest. After the example set by Colin Kaepernick, it can now be reasonably assumed that a player taking a knee or sitting out the national anthem is doing so in protest of the injustices facing people of color in America, and the lack of accountability when unarmed black and brown people are assaulted or killed by law enforcement.
To stand for the anthem does not mean you oppose these injustices, of course. But linking presents a faux show of unity that promotes the ideal that we one, that we are all treated the same and that we’re all in this fight together.
What is this show of unity? Is it unity with Kaepernick, the football martyr who may very well never again play professionally? Is it unity against someone or some institution? Or is it in support of the Pollyannaish belief that we will soon become a post-racial society, despite 60 million of our fellow countrymen and women voting for a man who promotes principle tenets of white supremacy and white nationalism?
If anything, the linked arms appear to be a sign of solidarity against President Donald Trump, a man with no north star who has a history of inserting himself into conversations that do not include him. But Kaepernick’s protest isn’t about Trump or the flag but about racism and inequality; Trump perverted this to make it all about him.
Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers stayed inside the locker room during the anthem on Sunday because “there are only a few times in a man’s life where you have a chance to stand up for something that you believe in.” But the arm-in-arm stances are moderate compromises that point to an issue off in the distance rather than a confrontation of the ugly truths about the country.
They are “thoughts and prayers”—We’re thinking about the issues but we can’t be bothered right now with solutions. Protests are designed to make you feel uncomfortable, to motivate change. Arms in arms are “it’ll all-be-OK” statements that do little to advance the cause.
But it was the mind-numbing appearances in London and in Washington D.C. by two team owners that stripped this “protest” of its credibility. Jacksonville owner Shad Khan and Washington owner Dan Snyder stood linked with their employees on Sunday; each had given $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, this for a candidate who for a year had promised citizens further division in the country through bigoted and reckless rhetoric.
The presence of Khan and Snyder on the sideline was an affront to a cause first championed by Kaepernick. If you feel strongly enough to stand linked with your players—some of whom condemned the president in unequivocal terms after their game—anything short of a total rebuke of Trump and a donation of a similar or greater size to a cause opposing the president would not be sufficient.
But there they were, front and center for this unity charade, months after giving a fortune for an party celebrating a man who believes the players beside them are sons of bitches, without a hint of irony.