Understanding #TakeAKnee and Athlete Activism

How Are Athletes Protesting Racial Injustice?

Last Updated August 28, 2020. Originally published in September 2018.

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In August 2020, players in the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer decided to go on strike, walking off courts and playing fields in protest of systemic racism and police brutality. These strikes, which unfolded in the wake of protests after the deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of law enforcement, build on a long tradition of Black athletes using their platform to protest racial injustice in the United States.

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, who was a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers at the time, decided to take a knee as the national anthem played before football games. His goal was to protest police brutality, racial injustice, and systemic inequality. In his own words,

We protest because we love ourselves and we love our people. It was James Baldwin who said, ‘to be black in America and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.’ My question is, why aren’t all people? How can you stand for the national anthem of a nation that preaches and propagates freedom and justice for all, that is so unjust to so many of the people living there? How can you not be in a rage when you know that you are always at risk of death in the streets or enslavement in the prison system? How can you willingly be blind to the truth of systemic racialized injustice?1

Kaepernick’s gesture of taking a knee was adopted by a number of other NFL players, including Eric Reid, Jeremy Lane, and Brandon Marshall, among others. Initially, NFL leadership objected to the protest, but after the death of George Floyd, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell endorsed the protests, and they have gained popular support. Over the summer of 2020, taking a knee became a common gesture of protest during Black Lives Matter protests. Colin Kaepernick, however, has not been able to find employment as a professional football player since he left the 49ers in 2017.

Use some or all of the activities in this Teaching Idea to help students explore the power athletes have to influence us, the symbolism of kneeling as a form of protest, the origin and legacy of the Take A Knee protest in the NFL, the significance of the more recent athlete boycotts, and the long history of athletes protesting racial injustice in the United States.

Note: What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Get student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.

  1. How Can Athletes Influence Us?

    Many people—adults and youth alike—look up to athletes, giving them the power to influence public opinion. Ask students to reflect in their journals using the following prompt:

    Think of a time when an athlete spoke out about a social cause. What was the cause? Did it change how you thought about the cause? Did it change how you thought about the athlete? (If you do not follow sports, you can write about an example involving another celebrity, such as a musician or movie star, public figure you admire.)

    Remote Learning Note: For additional guidance on setting up student journals during remote learning, see our teaching strategy Journals in a Remote Learning Environment.

  2. What Is the Symbolism of Taking a Knee?

    Show your students the three images—of Colin Kaepernick, protesters in New York, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—in the New York Times article, Kneeling, Fiercely Debated in the N.F.L., Resonates in Protests.

    Ask your students to reflect on the following questions:

    • Why do you think the people in each image are kneeling?
    • What is one word that you associate with the phrase take a knee?

    Then, ask your students to share the one word they associate with the phrase take a knee using the Wraparound strategy. After each student has shared their word, discuss:

    • What were the common themes among the words?
    • Were there any words that surprised you? Why did you find them surprising?

    Share the captions of the images from the New York Times article with your students. Then, share the following quote from Chad Williams, the chair of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University:

    Kneeling is both an act of defiance and resistance, but also of reverence, of mourning, [of] honoring lives lost2

    Ask your students:

    • According to this quote, what is the symbolism of kneeling?
    • Why might people choose to kneel as a form of protest?
    • Can you think of other types of symbolic actions that people use in protests?

    Remote Learning Note: You can ask students to view the images and reflect on the first two questions individually ahead of time. Then, complete the remainder of the activity during a synchronous session or by using a discussion forum.

  3. How Did the Take A Knee Protest Begin?

    Read the BBC article Black Lives Matter: Where does 'taking a knee' come from? with your students in order to provide them with context about the protest. Then, read the following quote from Colin Kaepernick together:

    We protest because we love ourselves and we love our people. It was James Baldwin who said, “to be black in America and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” My question is, why aren’t all people? How can you stand for the national anthem of a nation that preaches and propagates freedom and justice for all, that is so unjust to so many of the people living there? How can you not be in a rage when you know that you are always at risk of death in the streets or enslavement in the prison system? How can you willingly be blind to the truth of systemic racialized injustice?3

    Ask your students:

    • According to Colin Kaepernick, why did he decide to kneel during the national anthem?
    • What were the different reactions to Kaepernick and other athletes taking a knee as a form of protest?

    Remote Learning Note: Ask your students to read the BBC article and the quote from Colin Kaepernick individually. Then, students can discuss the questions during a synchronous session or through a discussion forum.

  4. What Has Changed since the Take A Knee Protest Began?

    Since Colin Kaepernick started the Take A Knee protest in the NFL, public opinion and the official rhetoric of NFL leadership have shifted dramatically. Share the following sources with your students to explore what has changed—and what hasn’t—since the Take A Knee protest began.

    Source 1
    In 2016, after Colin Kaepernick began the Take A Knee protest, only 28% of survey respondents said that they considered his protest “appropriate.”4

    Source 2
    In 2017, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote the following in a letter:

    We live in a country that can feel very divided. Sports, and especially the NFL, brings people together and lets them set aside those divisions, at least for a few hours. The current dispute over the National Anthem is threatening to erode the unifying power of our game, and is now dividing us, and our players, from many fans across the country.5

    Source 3
    In 2020, 52 percent of survey respondents agreed that it is “OK for NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police killings of African Americans.”6

    Source 4
    In 2020, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued the following statement:

    We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People. We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter.7

    Once students have finished reading the sources, ask them:

    • How has the response to the Take A Knee protest changed over time?
    • Why do you think public opinion has shifted significantly on this issue?

    Then, tell students that Roger Goodell released his statement after the murder of George Floyd and after pressure from NFL players. Share a portion of the statement from the NFL players with your students. (Note: You can either read the quote below, or play the video in which the players read their statement.)

    On behalf of the National Football League, this is what we, the players, would like to hear you state: We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people. We, the National Football League, admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting. We, the National Football League, believe Black Lives Matter.8

    Ask your students:

    • The NFL players asked the leadership to “admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting.” In Roger Goodell’s statement, he states, “We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier.” How does Goodell’s alteration to the statement change its meaning? What do you think the difference is between “silencing” and “not listening”?
    • Do you think that a change in public opinion leads to a change in action?

    Remote Learning Note: You can ask students to read the sources for this activity independently. (They can find them on the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.) Students can reflect on the first two discussion questions independently. Then, ask them to analyze the statement from the NFL players either during a synchronous session or in a discussion forum.

  5. How Else Have Athletes Advocated for Social Change?

    In August 2020 after Jacob Blake was shot by police in Wisconsin, players in the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer decided to go on strike during a number of games to protest racial injustice and police violence. Their actions built on the legacy of Colin Kaepernick and other athletes who have participated in the Take A Knee protest. Read the New York Times article Led by N.B.A., Boycotts Disrupt Pro Sports in Wake of Blake Shooting with your students. Then, ask them:

    • The article states: “Some [athletes] also began to question . . . whether providing entertainment through basketball was actually diverting public attention away from the broader social justice movement.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not?
    • How do you think players deciding to boycott games could lead to social change? How do you think athletes can raise awareness of an issue among people who might otherwise not engage with that issue?

    Remote Learning Note: Ask your students to read the New York Times article individually ahead of time. Then, students can discuss the questions during a synchronous session or through a discussion forum.

  6. What Is the History of Athletes Protesting?

    There is a long history of Black athletes protesting segregation, racial profiling, police violence, and other forms of racial injustice in the United States. For instance, African-American Olympic runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos were stripped of the medals they won in the 1968 Olympics after raising their fists in a Black Power salute during the awards ceremony. The year before, the charismatic heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., better known as Muhammad Ali, protested the Vietnam War, refused the draft, and was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title.

    Stream episode 11 of the civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement, Ain't Gonna Shuffle No More, which documents Ali’s activism and protest. Use resources and activities in our Eyes on the Prize Study Guide (pages 164–170) alongside the video.

    Remote Learning Note: Students can stream the documentary episode independently. Share resources from the Eyes on the Prize Study Guide with students to guide their viewing.

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