Taking a stand — or a knee — on the National Anthem

The intersection of sports, politics, and protest


Clarion photo Jaden Rapaport

Various teams at Cleveland take a knee or stand during the national anthem. Photos by Jaden Rapaport. Graphic by Lily Beeson-Norwitz

By Sophie Weir and Lily Tewfik

Last year, Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem, protesting police brutality against Black Americans. This voiceless act created an echo of adversity through the country, sparking controversy and debate. As the 2017 fall NFL season unfolds, more and more well-known athletes are kneeling as the distinctive notes of “Star-Spangled Banner” begin to play. It’s broadened into a well known political and social discussion — and the halls of Cleveland aren’t exempt from its grip. Looking at this national phenomenon closer raises the question: should American athletes be using their platforms to raise awareness, and how are Cleveland students responding?

At its core, kneeling during the anthem is meant to be a tool for furthering discussions about racism and inequality in the United States. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in flag for a country that oppresses Black people, and people of color,” said Colin Kaepernick in a press conference last year. He was referring to the subject of police brutality, an issue as prevalent as ever in modern day America. Recent videos have gone viral showing police officers shooting and killing unarmed Black men; In many cases, these officers walk away without serving jail time.

Many Americans believe, however, that kneeling during the anthem is disrespectful to the flag, and that these discussions should be kept separate from sports. Refusal to stand for the anthem has been interpreted by many as disregard for American armed forces — who put their lives on the line for our country every day. Not only that, but some see it as a counterproductive means of action. “It’s an oxymoron that you’re sitting down, disrespecting that flag that has given you the freedom to speak out,” said Drew Brees, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints.

President Trump added fuel to the fire when he called for the expulsion of athletes who kneel during the anthem. In just one of several inflammatory tweets, he claimed, “The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”

But, the controversy isn’t only affecting professional players; Cleveland High School sports teams have been faced with these tough questions as well. The current political backdrop in athletics has Warriors asking themselves what their position during the anthem can mean, and how they should take advantage of that power. Each team, and often player, has their own story behind the choices they make on the field.

Many teams talked about what these choices can mean together, addressing the controversy directly to make sure everyone was on the same page. For varsity girls soccer, this was the best way to avoid any misunderstandings. An in-depth conversation was organized by the three captains: seniors Julia Downing, Ella Burke, and Lauren Ruegg. They talked about what kneeling represents, and the context of racial injustice in the United States. According to Burke, they read articles together and allowed everyone to share their ideas to make sure people could make informed decisions.

After taking part in this discussion, several players on the team took a knee at their next game as the anthem began to swell. According to Ruegg, she knelt to bring attention to some of the problems in our country surrounding racial justice. “I decided to use my position as an athlete, and my privilege as a white female, to be in alliance with people I look up to, and who I share similar ideas with — It got to a point where I felt bad for standing up, because I agreed more with the people who were kneeling for the national anthem. It’s not out of disrespect for my country.”

Ashley Robinson, a sophomore on the team, decided to stand during the anthem after taking time to think about what the flag meant to her. She said she felt thankful for the way the captains honored every player’s individual choices, and how everyone’s voice was respected during the discussion.

“I liked how they didn’t force us to make a decision as a whole team– it should be a matter of your own values,” said Robinson. “Even though I believe in why everyone else wanted to [kneel,] I knew that I needed to respect everyone in my family who’s been in the military — I just decided I had to go with my gut, and my gut said to stand up.”

Cleveland’s varsity volleyball team has avoided the question of kneeling versus standing altogether, and are dealing instead with their controversial cheer at the end of the anthem. This tradition involves the team joining hands and yelling “land of the warriors” in place of “land of the free,” to build excitement and spirit in the crowd. According to members of the team, conflict arose at an away game at Benson High School, whose volleyball team knelt during the anthem along with a large portion of the students in the bleachers. When the Cleveland team cheered at the end of the song, they received a very negative reaction from the crowd, and the opposing team.

“They thought that it was disrespectful for us to [yell during the anthem.] Even though we didn’t think about it that way at first, we realized it can definitely be perceived as insensitive to yell over them when they’re silently protesting,” said Sisi Francis, a player on the volleyball team. “Once I fully understood the meaning behind [kneeling,] it made me really sad that what we had done was seen as disrespectful.”

Since then, they’ve experienced some disagreement over whether they should continue cheering during the anthem. According to Kylie Ristvedt, one of the varsity volleyball captains, the team has avoided the tradition at a handful of games, but it continues to be a topic up for discussion. “We have had debates on whether or not to do our routine — we didn’t want to offend anybody, so we’ve been mostly playing it by ear game by game,” Ristvedt said.

One of the toughest aspects of the dispute is whether teams should come to an agreement as a whole, or leave it up to the individual. Many believe that team unity makes any statement all the more powerful. On the other hand, players who may disagree with the rest of the team could feel polarized and unheard as a result. This was a point of contention for members of the varsity boys soccer team. Some argued that they should kneel all together, while others pointed out that this could cause a rift, hampering the way they played together. In the end, the team came to an agreement. Each player would be allowed to make his own choice, similar to the girls’ team.

“Police brutality is a real thing, they’re actually shooting Black people in the streets for no good reason. It’s happened several times, and it’s become big in the nation — [one of my teammates said] ‘We’re going to kneel. This is messed up, and we’re not for it,’” said sophomore Jett Starr, who plays for the boys varsity soccer program. He knelt during the anthem at their next game, citing support of some teammates who, at times, may feel unsafe living in their country.

Connor Dewson, one of four varsity boys soccer captains, said he chose to stand because that’s the way he was brought up. “I was taught that any time the anthem comes on, [you put your] hand over your heart and you face the flag. I’ve had many members of my family serve in the military and put their life on the line for the flag, so it’s always been deeply ingrained in my family that you respect the flag and what it stands for.”

Controversies like this definitely have the potential to cause conflict among teams. This was a concern for many players, who didn’t want teammates’ opposing viewpoints to change the way they played together.

“I was worried that we would end up being torn as a team because of our political beliefs,” said Starr. “It ended up not being an issue — [one of the captains said] ‘Hey, let’s just play soccer. People are going to do what they want to do, they’re going to express their beliefs. We can do it separately and all still be a team.’”

According to Eric Fraser, the head coach of the Cleveland football team, this kind of cooperation and acceptance in the face of disagreement is exactly what makes sports teams unique. Sometimes, he explained, conflicts take a backseat when everyone has one common goal: playing their best game.

“Every young man or young woman is their own person, and they’re going to have beliefs — Really what transcends those things is the brotherhood amongst players. A player may not agree with another, but the bond within a team is still really strong.”

Fraser said he read the Portland Public Schools policy to the football team, which states that the only requirement of players during the anthem is that they remain silent. He wanted everyone on the team to know they had a right to express themselves, and that he supported them whether they stood or knelt.

Though a handful of football players have knelt during this season, most of the athletes have remained standing. One anonymous team member stood for a reason less explored by mass media. According to this player, they agreed with the meaning behind the movement, but thought that many of the people kneeling recently weren’t doing it for the right reasons.

“The whole purpose of taking a knee is for racial injustice, but now it’s because of what Trump said of the NFL players. They’re doing it because it’s a trend. People are forgetting the whole meaning of it,” said the anonymous source.

The president’s accusatory tweets against players opting to kneel during the anthem have possibly steered the conversation away from racial injustice. Are athletes still kneeling for the right reasons? Or have these recent developments caused kneeling to become a statement against Trump? To fully understand the meaning of this movement, we need to remember its roots. Let’s delve into the history of the civil rights movement to provide some insight into the true reasons for kneeling during the national anthem.

Kneeling itself has been prevalent since the the civil rights movement, during the fight for equal voting rights for Black Americans. A photo recently circulating the internet shows Martin Luther King Jr. kneeling on the sidewalk, with a crowd of protesters following suit in his wake. They were kneeling in prayer after city police arrested over 250 people from their ranks on the way to the Dallas County Courthouse, where they were hoping to register to vote.

A short while after this, another march was planned, this time in Alabama. It ended abruptly after a squad of police officers, manned with tear gas and wielding clubs, attacked the protesters. King was hesitant to plan another, knowing that as long as courts forbid these marches, officers could legally crackdown. However, after the murder of a white minister who had joined the march, they received the court approval they needed. Soon after, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, which did away with discriminatory practices used to make voting inaccessible or difficult for people of color.

This was just one of many milestone rights secured in the Supreme Court through the past century. During this time, protests erupted across the country to address major issues that were pertinent in Black Americans’ lives, including the battle against segregation in the ‘60s.

The March on Washington was organized to pressure the presidential administration to enact a strong civil rights act, and was celebrated as a huge step in the fight against Jim Crow laws. At the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C, King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech to an audience of 250,000 people. The march was eventually successful; less than one year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, a legislation that banned racial discrimination in public spaces, employment, and education.

Every single one of these victories was a struggle, a fight that had to be waged relentlessly by Black Americans. Today, that fight is ongoing, and Kaepernick’s statement might just be the next chapter in the story. However, the controversy stems not from Kaepernick’s message, but from his methods. Many criticizers of kneeling during the anthem may respect the cause, but believe athletes shouldn’t be spreading their message at the expense of the flag. In the end, the decision of whether or not to kneel comes down to each person’s individual beliefs and values. It is undeniable that every athlete has the right to freedom of speech, and the right to make a statement. However, even though many sports teams may appear divided during the anthem, they’ll always be united on the field for at least one reason: to play the game they love.


            Taking a Knee: The Long View


  • Dec 6, 1865: The 13th Amendment is ratified, abolishing slavery.
  • Dec 24, 1865: The Ku Klux Klan is founded. The KKK was involved in lynchings, beatings, and other forms of harassment of Black Americans.
  • Aug 28, 1963: The March on Washington. Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his famous “I have a dream” speech.
  • July 2, 1964: President Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act. This ended all state and local laws requiring segregation.

  • Feb 1, 1965: MLK takes a knee in Dallas, Texas. The voting rights act was passed soon after.
  • Oct 15, 1966: The Black Panther party was founded. This group was formed as a means of self defense, to defend African-Americans against police violence.
  • April 4, 1968: MLK is assassinated
  • Feb 26, 2012: Trayvon Martin is shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. The unarmed teen was killed on his way to a convenience store. Zimmerman is later acquitted.

  • July 17, 2014: Eric Garner is choked to death by NYPD officer. The whole thing was caught on video and went viral, turning the phrase “I can’t breathe” into a key part of the Black Lives Matter movement. The officer was not indicted.
  • Aug 14, 2016: Colin Kaepernick takes a knee for the first time. Within the ensuing weeks, he gains traction and publicity.
  • Aug 28, 2016: Kaepernick meets with the media and explains his motives.I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed,” said Kaepernick.
  • Fall 2017: More NFL teams kneel or link arms in solidarity.
  • Sept 23, 2017: Trump tweets that athletes who kneel during the anthem should be fired. He claimed that by doing so, they “disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) by refusing to stand for the national anthem,”