My oldest started high school football practice recently, but we have talked more about his team’s pregame routine than touchdowns or tackles. Instead of X’s and O’s, Yosef and I are commiserating over whether he will kneel or stand during the national anthem. I wonder if other dads of third-string placekickers are spending time doing the same this summer.
Former NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who cost himself millions of dollars and a promising football career after kneeling during the anthem, has been back in the news in recent weeks. And with the ongoing protests and marches in reaction to high-profile instances of police violence against black people, the racial cavities that divide us are proving vast as well as immediate.
Taking a knee before a high school football game might seem relatively meaningless in the whole scheme of things, but I understand why it might seem noteworthy in the mind of an incoming freshman like Yosef, who my wife and I adopted from Ethiopia about 13 years ago.
I do have some strong feelings on the subject. I want to be careful, though, about projecting my views onto my son. In fact, during this time of boiling, racial turmoil, I wanted to take the opportunity to have a deeper discussion with a kid who’s usually tough to engage.
When he asked whether he should kneel during the national anthem, I asked him four questions. Yosef’s answers, I think, provided a blueprint for anyone wondering the same.
Question 1: Why are you kneeling?
Kaepernick knelt to shine a light on a social issue that, in his opinion, had little advocacy. If Yosef chooses to kneel, what issue has compelled him to do so?
Choosing to kneel during the national anthem must start with an issue – not necessarily the same one Kaepernick has – that you are passionate about. If Yosef doesn’t have such passion, or if he seems solely to be succumbing to the pressures of other black teammates or the significance of such a gesture to many others, I’d advise him to stay standing.
Kneeling is the outcome of a burning desire to make a difference, not vice versa.
Question 2: How are you sacrificing?
When Colin Kaepernick elected to kneel during The Star-Spangled Banner, he made several burdensome sacrifices. Kaepernick gave up, by some estimates, up to $100 million, yielding himself unemployable by NFL standards, and turned himself into a political lightning rod.
The ashes of Kaepernick’s career as the backdrop, I asked Yosef: What might you be sacrificing if you kneel?
Might Yosef alienate himself from some other classmates and parents? Yes.
Might his coach, in an act of retaliation, sit him on the bench? Very possibly.
Suddenly, Yosef might suddenly find himself to be “that pot stirrer” rather than “that skinny freshman.” No athlete who kneels will EVER pay as steep a cost as Kaepernick has – certainly not my son. There will be a price to pay, though, and it might be significant to a kid entering a new school in the fall.
Without a good understanding of what sacrifices could be demanded of him, there is no way for a kid to assess whether kneeling pregame is the best personal choice.
Question 3: Are you prepared if you face retaliation?
At one point, my son asked if I’d thought his coach might take notice if players kneeled during the anthem? My answer was a question: “Do you care?”
If players care that they might lose playing time if their coach disagrees with their stance, they should not kneel. A willingness to trade activism for a starting spot is a kneeling non-starter.
Question 4: What are you going to give?
Lost on many in the story of Colin Kaepernick is that he has made good on a pledge to donate millions to causes that share his passion for ending oppression. So as our discussion continued, I asked Yosef, “So, if you kneel, you’ll be planning to donate to charity, right?”
My son looked confused. He didn’t connect the dots between activism and support, financial or time-wise. If my son kneels, I want him to do so for a cause important enough to demand his resources.
Kneeling, particularly at a high school game, is meaningless at its face. The only lasting impact is in devoting time or money to local organizations that champion the reason for the kneeling.
As long as he’s ready to give, he can consider kneeling.
I am glad I chose to create a dialogue with my son rather than dismissing him. Asking those four questions helped me learn more about his thoughts – and let me wade through mine, too.
I learned that Yosef cares deeply about the same issues that Kaepernick knelt for. Yosef explained to me his feelings about the Black Lives Matter protests, and his role in changing the underlying injustices have stained American history. My son, I believe, will be a starting point for a more inclusive American future.
Yosef, though, showed me that he lacked the maturity to connect activism and activity. He saw kneeling during the national anthem as little more than symbolic – an act that might convey a disgust in the status quo. To him, that symbolic gesture was it – he did not need to do anything else.
He didn’t plan to donate his allowance. He wouldn’t think of volunteering.
Yosef certainly was evaluating whether he’d be benched while determining his pregame routine. And whether he was OK with that.
I did not forbid Yosef from kneeling. I did not tell him to respect the flag and those who’ve sacrificed. I refused to dismiss him as only trying to get attention.
And, because I asked him those few questions, he may now have a more adequate answer.