First off, please allow me to make my opinions clear.
I think it is perfectly OK for athletes to protest in the form of taking a knee during the national anthem. They are influential figures in society who are taking peaceful actions against what they perceive as injustice — not the flag, the military or the anthem itself. The whole argument that politics and sports should be separate is faulty. Sports, just like any other entertainment aspect of society (like film or music), are tied with the ongoings of the world surrounding them.
For examples, look no further than when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists cloaked with black gloves during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics. Or when then-President Richard Nixon arbitrarily granted Texas the National Championship in 1969 in an effort to gain votes among southern states, even though Penn State finished an identical 11-0.
Sports simply do not exist in a concealed vacuum designed solely to entertain us, and athletes themselves are not different: Football players are real people (not fictional TV characters) with diverse backgrounds, and they have real opinions that they are allowed to express by using the far-reaching platforms they possess. As sports broadcaster Bob Costas recently pointed out on CNN, the national anthem does not play before performances of theatrical plays or movie screenings. It does, however, play before football players perform their craft. Because of this circumstance, numerous athletes (and now coaches and owners) have chosen to use the moment as an opportunity to spark conversations and maybe, just maybe, incite improvements to our country through the act of kneeling.
Ordinary people like you and I are allowed to protest under the First Amendment. So are athletes. And they are doing so. The time and place may make people feel uneasy or uncomfortable; the act itself may seem disruptive or even unpatriotic (I personally do not see it that way). But that’s how most meaningful movements initially feel. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the NFL’s recent attempts to put an end to the protests are simply wrong and contrary to the intent of the First Amendment.
Now, I arrive at the central question of this column: Why aren’t college athletes also protesting the national anthem like their professional counterparts?
Traditionally, colleges have been hotbeds for discourse, debate and protests. One of the first major draft-card burning rallies in opposition to the Vietnam War occurred at Cal in 1965. Earlier this year, USA TODAY reported 20,000–50,000 college students from more than 250 colleges showed up as part of the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. alone.
Perhaps it is our youthful ignorance, sense of invincibility or idealism that makes us college students think we can single-handedly change the world. Regardless of whether we are always successful in this goal, we try, and we try often. So are college athletes next in protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem?
The answer is complicated. If NFL players are discouraged from showing individuality on or off the field, college players are downright prevented from doing so. In response to players like Reggie Bush, Tim Tebow and Terrelle Pryor writing messages on their
eye-blacks, the NCAA banned the practice in 2010. Other college athletes like Todd Gurley or Johnny Manziel have been suspended by the NCAA for profiting off of their signatures in the form of autograph deals.
College football has always placed emphasis on institutions rather than singular athletes that are actually keeping programs’ wheels turning. The NCAA and its major football conferences would likely have simultaneous panic attacks if individual players started kneeling during the anthem.
That does not mean it won’t happen. At this time last season, a number of players from both Michigan and Michigan State raised their fists during the national anthem before each team’s game, with respective head coaches Mark Dantonio and Jim Harbaugh commending the acts. Now, with multitudes of NFL players kneeling in response to President Donald Trump’s disparaging comments about the practice, it will be interesting to see if college players follow suit in larger numbers.
Granted, most college football teams — including USC — remain in the locker room during the anthem. Regardless, viewers should expect some forms of protest by college players. One Yahoo Sports writer even urged all coaches to start letting their players onto the field so that they could be fully enabled to express their opinions about the issue. Perhaps even student sections will participate in some way.
Whether or not student-athletes will start protesting is up in the air. Regardless of if it happens, it’s strange to see college students on the back end of a movement rather than the forefront.
Trevor Denton is a sophomore studying journalism. He is also the deputy sports editor for the Daily Trojan. His column, T-Time, runs every other Wednesday.