After Colin Kaepernick ‘took the knee’ during the American national anthem at the 2016 NFL season to protest racial stereotyping and injustice in the US legal system, many athletes have embraced kneeling down during the American anthem as an anti-racist practice allied with the Black Lives Matter social movement. In response to this activism, US president Donald Trump used his notable social media presence to condemn such kneeling, declaring that “Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag — we MUST honor and respect it!”
Sport is often viewed as an apolitical sphere or, indeed, as a level playing field disconnected from broader social, cultural, and economic conditions, as success and excellence in sport should be determined based on performance alone. Yet, institutionalised competitive sport in America and elsewhere is a space where national and social identities, inequalities, and forms of oppression are highlighted, reproduced, and resisted. When ‘taking the knee’, athletes like Kaepernick contribute to a long history of political activism in sport that targets broader inequalities beyond the sporting world.
Benedict Anderson famously argued that nations, like other social communities, are ‘imagined’ in the sense that national identities, including ‘American’, are collectively created or constructed through a process of active imagination. National identities require a vision of a national community with shared attributes, values, and ideals that unite all of ‘us’ – the Americans. The idea of ‘national sport’ is particularly useful for creating a sense of shared national identity, as it allows ‘us’ to rally around ‘our’ national teams and ‘our’ sporting heroes and heroines. Indeed, athletes often come to symbolise or represent the national collective, and their bodies stand as symbols of the ‘body politic’. Their victories are celebrated as a national accomplishment while their losses are suffered collectively.
Yet, when it comes to athletes who embody identities that occupy a marginalised position in the cultural and political life of the nation – such as African American identities and bodies in the hegemonic white culture of the US – their ability to represent the nation (‘correctly’) is not clear cut. The bodies and identities of African American athletes evoke not only contemporary debates about the status of ‘race’ in American society, but they also evoke related colonial legacies that have long portrayed black subjects as uncivilised, uncultured, deviant, child-like at best and animal-like at worst. Exemplary is the imaginary of the ‘natural black athlete’, which represents black athletes’ sporting achievements as a side-product of natural (animal-like) vigour of black bodies, contrasted against white athletes’ sporting accomplishments represented to be a cultural attainment achieved through refined skill and technique. Viewed through this lens, the success of black athletes in the sphere of sports appears as the result of their perceived natural aptitude for hard bodily labour (recalling justifications for slavery), contrasted against white subjects’ perceived aptitude for cultural and intellectual endeavours.
African American anti-racist sport activism has always taken place in the context of these broader socio-historical, cultural and political circumstances through which black subjects have been systematically denied access to American cultural life and political power. Athletic participation and excellence has served as one of the few avenues through which cultural legitimacy and recognition has historically been awarded to black communities under conditions of white supremacy. From riots to protests and boycotts to dashikis, large afros, and raised fists as a challenge to dominant white norms and white supremacy, African American athletes have used a myriad of strategies to resist, challenge, and change oppressive social structures. Such activism has overwhelmingly been condemned and demonised as anti-American by defenders of the ‘American dream’ because it poses a threat to the national ethos of American society, imagined as a liberal sphere where prosperity and success are attainable for all, if one only works hard.
The sphere of sport, and the identities and bodies of athletes who occupy this sphere at the highest competitive level, have great symbolic power when it comes to reproducing as well as resisting the nation’s image of itself. When Trump condemned ‘taking the knee’ as disrespectful and dishonourable anti-patriotism, he stood as a champion of American nationalist imaginaries within which national unity is created by suppressing alternative visions of cultural and political life. Kaepernick and others’ act of kneeling is dangerous to this vision of unity, because it poses a symbolic challenge and a threat to American racial hierarchies within which black lives have not, and are not taken to matter as white lives do.