Criticism Of Baker Mayfield Reveals It's Not Politics, But A Cultural Battle Over Kneeling, Protest By Athletes

When a commenter on social media wanted Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield to say he would not kneel this season, Mayfield said he would kneel, which prompted criticism over the notion of politics in sports when Mayfield's actual political action has not received nearly the criticism as his intent to kneel.
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It's difficult to fathom that anyone would suggest the actions of a person mourning the murder of a loved one or sympathizing with a friend or coworker whose family member was murdered would stand accused of being political. For the people impacted, they are grieving and trying to make sense of the senseless.

The rest of the country may not have been fully engaged in this discussion of race until seeing the video of the murder of George Floyd, but a significant portion of NFL players were outraged and speaking out after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year old black man killed in Georgia. Not only did so many black players see themselves in Arbery and how easily they could be the person ambushed and killed the way he was, Arbery was also the cousin of Tracy Walker, a safety for the Detroit Lions. As much as this outrage was and is about injustice, players were also supporting a teammate and colleague who lost a member of his family tragically.

Arbery's murder wasn't truly probed until there was a substantial amount of public pressure fueled in part by NFL players speaking out and keeping the video that filmed the strings of events in the public consciousness. The murder is being investigated and three arrests have been made, but had it not been for a campaign through the public, it's not clear that anything would've been done, which only underlines the point of players speaking out and the protests across the country.

The murder of Floyd, the shooting death of David McAtee in Louisville and now the latest death of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta while trying to escape police custody only add fuel to the fire, but Arbery was the spark for so many within the NFL.

Now, as the issue of kneeling is being been revisited, prominent white players are being put on the spot over the issue. A common refrain is a desire to keep politics out of sports. Justice isn't political any more than civil rights is. It's the bare minimum and should be a goal for everyone to achieve. What's the counterargument?

So much of this new outrage at the NFL seems contrived. Baker Mayfield and J.J. Watt were engaged on social media only hours apart on the same day either assuming or demanding that they assure fans they would never kneel. Mayfield said he plans to kneel and Watt said nothing of his intent to kneel, but corrected the person suggesting it was disrespectful for those that did.

The following day, the same toothless campaigns calling for people to boycott the NFL over kneeling began to appear. And while there are undoubtedly real people swearing that is the tactic they plan to take, the campaign seems incredibly artificial. Even when this had more teeth behind it in 2017, the TV ratings never reflected it and most of the famous people that were part of this boycott didn't last more than a few weeks.

Mayfield, along with 39 other members of the Browns signed a letter to Congress organized by the Players Coalition calling for an end to qualified immunity for police officers, thereby reducing the difficulty in order to sue them in civil court. This is political. Everyone who signed the letter is specifically calling for public policy to be enacted, but this isn't the action by Mayfield that is being targeted. Instead, it's over his commitment to kneel in protest and solidarity this season.

If Mayfield isn't receiving nearly the criticism for the only the action he took that is truly political, it suggests it's culture being dressed up as politics to make it look more divisive than it is. A jingoistic segment of the population that reveres the national anthem, even if there are problems within the country that need to be solved, believe a gratitude is owed while the song is played, celebrating the idea of America that allows them to engage in this brand of discourse. Perhaps if it was presented in that context, there would be a more honest and fruitful discussion. 

Instead, many of those offended who are only willing to accept that the anthem be respected in the way they insist call it political, use troops, both living and dead as props, and the threat of boycott to force their way of thinking onto people. In 2017, this proved effective, generating a divide within the country. In 2020, public opinion has shifted so much because of the violence people are seeing on video and a better understanding of what the protests actually mean, it doesn't appear to have anywhere near the same traction.

Regardless of how they choose to paint the situation, they are asking a person like Tracy Walker and many of these players not to be human as they are being shaped by tragedy and loss. Ahmaud Arbery was killed for simply being black in America. If pointing out the fact this is not only abhorrent, but a fundamental problem in society is political, then sports needs more of it until those issues are rectified.

Perhaps the argument can be made that this is a slippery slope, that this could go too far and this evolves to a point where athletes are putting the names of candidates on shoes or wearing shirts supporting or opposing specific platforms during games, but nothing like that is really even happening on social media. The closest thing to it has been Drew Brees respectfully responding to President Donald Trump via social media on the issue of kneeling.

As it is, the issues being bought up by athletes should receive universal approved. Civil rights, justice for all, equal protection under the law. Quibbling over whether it's appropriate for an athlete to be able to think for themselves in their personal lives and then quietly, respectfully serve as a reminder during the anthem of the presence of institutional racism is missing the point in the best of circumstances and is often a deliberate distraction to change the argument. Anything is better than taking on the merits of the discussion on race, because being against these issues amounts to racism and an effort to limit the power of one particular minority.

If there's an aversion to politics in sports, there should be a demand for government to properly to address the ills of society so athletes don't feel compelled to speak on them in a way that elected officials simply haven't. If anything, the fact that players in the NBA were put in a position where they felt wearing "I Can't Breathe" shirts in the wake of Eric Garner's death in 2014 or NFL players among other athletes kneeling quietly while a song is playing before a game just to be acknowledged should spur action into either addressing those grievances or at the very least willing to listen and understand them.

If the goal is to have the anthem revered, then it's incumbent on those who want that to make sure the country is at a point where people want to pay that proper tribute. Forcing people to pay fealty is propagating a lie that everyone the anthem and country are supposed to represent are treated equally for the sake of appearance. The idea that those people would be offended by the inescapable reality in this country says more about their unwillingness to live in the real world than any athlete using their platform to encourage the proliferation of social justice ever could.

The fundamental misunderstanding for people who believe kneeling during the anthem is a form of disrespect have yet to comprehend that what they see as an insult to everything they want to believe this country to be, a segment of the population doesn't see. Not because they don't want it to be true, but simply because that's not their life experience. Instead, they see these issues as matters of life and death and that survival instinct is stronger than any contrived indignation the other side can muster, putting that opposition in a spot to only delay the inevitable in a battle of culture that's already been lost.

There's often a discussion about athletes as role models and whether it's Baker Mayfield or the countless other athletes that are speaking out in favor of racial equality and social justice, standing up for what's unequivocally right while understanding the risk of alienating some in the process, is an example others can both look up to and be proud.