Magazine article The Christian Century

NFL Players and Other Vulnerable Bodies

Magazine article The Christian Century

NFL Players and Other Vulnerable Bodies

Article excerpt

American football, with its large rosters, precise formations, and martial overtones, is the epitome of a team sport. Whatever their individual talents, each player functions in a narrowly defined role--a cog in the machinery of a team's overall effort.

Yet players are also people--and one of the most vivid images of players' humanity comes when they take a knee. During the game, this is one of several ways that players "down" the ball, avoiding being tackled by ending the play. Between plays and on the sidelines, players take a knee for various reasons. Lexicographer Ben Zimmer has traced the phrase back to a college team's 1960 tribute to a deceased coach. It gained traction in reference to players stopping to rest. Later the posture came to signify solidarity--an expression of prayer or encouragement for the anxious or concern for the injured. In each case, taking a knee highlights the vulnerable humanity football teams are made of.

That's what makes the NFL player protests against police brutality and racism--begun in 2016 by Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid--so powerful. The sight of black players taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem evokes solidarity, empathy, and remembrance of the dead. It's a posture that represents a player stepping out of his role in the game and embracing his more fundamental identity as a person.

Many NFL fans objected to this demonstration. They emphasized instead players' duty to toe the line. Like soldiers, they should keep their opinions to themselves; they should accept without complaint the debilitating injuries they suffer in action (no one forced them to enlist); and they should never, ever break formation. …

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