Log In

Reset Password

Martin Luther King’s lesson for NFL protesters

New England Patriots players kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Houston Texans last month (Photograph by Michael Dwyer/AP)

The National Football League may yet back down from its reported plan to require players to stand for the national anthem, and certainly the sports media are apoplectic. My view is different: I’m glad the league seems to be on the verge of pressing the point.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the protesting players are wrong or deserve to be punished. The problem with the kneeling-and-sitting has been that they are not, let us say, advancing the ball. The players insist that they are trying to make a point. Their defenders insist that they have the right to do so. But when the issue becomes your right to dissent rather than what you are trying to say, your protest is not working.

Colin Kaepernick began kneeling a year ago to make a statement about police brutality. Other players have said that they are protesting racial inequality more generally. Non-violent action is not the same as self-expression. Protest at its best should have a clear, articulable purpose. It should also be designed to create a disruptive tension that can be resolved only by bringing the movement nearer to its goal.

By this standard, the NFL protests have not been working very well. Sportswriters have been particularly complicit in this. By lecturing angry fans or grudging owners about how the players should not be criticised for peacefully protesting, they are in effect urging that nothing about the game on the field should change. The players should protest, and everyone should behave as though they are not, and the game should go on. In other words, the sportswriters seem to think that fans or owners or politicians who disapprove are being disruptive.

But this turns the traditional theory of protest on its head. The point of protest is disruption. It is the players who should be trying to provoke a larger response than a few booing fans. Instead, the NFL protest has become reminiscent of the Albany Movement of 1961-62, regarded by many historians as a defeat for Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Here, the history is instructive. When the SCLC came to Albany, Georgia, the chief of police — a man named Laurie Pritchett — decided to avoid the traps that had ensnared his counterparts elsewhere in Dixie. Pritchett was a segregationist, but a clever one. Albany would have no police dogs, riot batons or water cannon. Instead, Pritchett would meet non-violence with non-violence. His officers were carefully trained to make arrests with minimum force. He contacted nearby towns to borrow their jails so that local cells were never overflowing with protesters. The arrests police made were for disturbing the peace, not for violating segregation laws. When King himself was jailed, drawing the nation’s attention to Albany, Pritchett arranged for his bail to be paid promptly. The result of all this manoeuvring was a protest that generated very little news — and a segregated town that changed very little. Pritchett, went the saying at the time, had killed the movement with kindness.

Kindness was a problem. The SCLC had never understood non-violent protest as simply the exercise of the right to dissent — the goal was to force change. To reach that goal, the demonstrations had to create sufficient tension that the authorities would ultimately react with harshness, and perhaps violence. If no reaction was forthcoming, there were no chilling photographs, no blaring headlines — and no change.

That is what happened in Albany, after Pritchett flipped the script. The protests, wrote King biographer David Levering Lewis, “pained but did not seriously cripple the merchants”. On top of that, the goals were amorphous. The tactics were inconsistent. Although there were many arrests, the protesters never managed to provoke the harsh response that they had hoped for. As a result, what had been planned as an intolerable disruption of business as usual became little more than a tolerable exercise of self-expression.

Until now, the NFL has been relying upon the Laurie Pritchett playbook. No anthem protesters have been punished. Yes, lots of fans have been booing, and calls on social media for a boycott of television broadcasts have drawn some adherents, although adherents disagree over how many.

But none of this has affected the game as played on the field. With the full complicity of sportswriters and the league, the kneeling-and-sitting became a part of the background — not intolerable, not a disruption, but simply a handful of acts of self-expression. Under this approach, the game would go on, everyone would get paid, and the protests would change nothing because nothing would be at stake.

Had President Donald Trump not weighed in, the league might have continued indefinitely to kill the protests with kindness. Instead, the owners plan next week to discuss what measures to take. I have no idea whether Trump has his finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist in a way that the players and their defenders, including me, do not. Polls are all over the place. But the President’s unfair and unrelenting criticism has smoked out that many team owners are also unhappy. So maybe there will finally be a response of some sort after all. Strange though it may sound, that would be a step forward.

It is not that I want the players to be punished. I don’t. I may feel differently about the anthem, but I understand and support what they are trying to achieve. The trouble is, they have been unable to move the ball forward. The protest is not any nearer its goal. We need a serious national conversation about race, but the players aren’t sparking one. Instead, we are arguing about tactics.

Now that the owners are showing signs that they may listen to the President — now that there may be fines or suspensions in prospect — we may finally get a real debate going. Let’s wait and see what happens if a couple of highly paid stars sit out a game or two. At that point, maybe we will get the serious debate that we need.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include The Emperor of Ocean Park and Back Channel, and his non-fiction includes Civility and Integrity