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If You Don’t Understand the NFL Protests…

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By Luke O’Neil

There are things that cannot be taught. Altruism is one. And so, if you’re anything like one of the nation’s most disingenuous hucksters, and many of you are, crowing online or on TV about the suspect motives of a man like Colin Kaepernick, or any of the dozens of other professional athletes who took a knee yesterday in solidarity with his cause, no one can help you understand why you’re wrong.

No one can help Newt Gingrich, for example, who appeared on Fox & Friends to malign Kaepernick, saying, “If you’re a multi-millionaire who feels oppressed, you need a therapist, not a publicity stunt.” No one can help Tomi Lahren, who insinuated Kaepernick was being paid off by liberal bogeyman George Soros, because why else would anyone put their livelihood or reputation on the line if it wasn’t part of a con? Shut up and be thankful you have the privilege to play in the NFL earning millions of dollars, the president said, because to him, that is the point. There is nothing beyond personal gain.

They are adrift, as many on the right are, because they are incapable of understanding why someone like Kaepernick—indeed, a man more privileged than most of us—would risk anything to help others. Where is the angle, they ask? You’d have to have something of empathy inside of you to get there.

“ In the year since Kaepernick started kneeling, 223 black Americans were killed by police. But you would have to listen to comprehend that, which cannot be taught.

But empathy cannot be taught. You are either capable of understanding someone else’s feelings, or you are not. And so, you can, from the comfort of your home, call for the firing of NFL players exercising their right to protest—something 65 percent of Republicans agree should happen—or you can place yourself in their position. You can, if you are capable of empathy, ask why they might be doing this. Surely, aside from the most cynical among us, one can’t believe there’s no reason for it beyond seeking attention. So, who are they kneeling for? Why would they risk such invective and scorn from vast swaths of their fanbase, from the president himself, if not because their lived experience, and the experiences of the people close to them, are slightly different from yours?

You can only understand that by being willing to listen, which cannot be taught. You can listen when a person of color says that this protest is not about President Trump’s bluster, but rather the disproportionate number of shootings of black people in this country. Black men, only six percent of the population, account for a quarter of deaths at the hands of police, and 32 percent of all unarmed people killed. In the year since Kaepernick started kneeling, 223 black Americans were killed by police. But you would have to listen to comprehend that, which cannot be taught. You would have to listen to the man’s words, who will happily explain what his protest is about better than any third-hand telephone-game translation from knee-jerk critics distorting it for their own performative grievance pandering.

Here, try it:

“There’s a lot of things that need to change,” Kaepernick said in August of last year. “One specifically is police brutality, there’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. The cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.”

Or this, from Eric Reid, who knelt with his then teammate last year:

“We spoke at length about many of the issues that face our community, including systemic oppression against people of color, police brutality and the criminal justice system… We also discussed how we could use our platform, provided to us by being professional athletes in the NFL, to speak for those who are voiceless.”

Reid added: “I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy. It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite.”

Why are they protesting the flag? the people who cannot listen have asked. Why are they disrespecting the troops? And yet, if you’d listen, any time an athlete is asked about the issue, they will speak of their abiding respect for the military. Here’s the Patriots’ Devin McCourtey doing just that. Listen to him. I cannot teach you, and I cannot make you, but it’s there to be heard if you want it.

Listening isn’t enough, however, because once you do listen, you need to apply skepticism, and skepticism cannot be taught. You might be told Kaepernick’s motives are selfish, or that protestors aren’t protesting at the right time and in the right place and in the exact fashion that someone else deems appropriate. You must be skeptical of that. It cannot be taught, but you must try.

You can heed the words of James Baldwin, who spoke decades before the NFL protest, but whose words are nonetheless emblematic of the reaction to the entire movement. “When the Israelis pick up guns, or the Poles or the Irish or any white man in the world says, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ the entire white world applauds,” he said. “When a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.”

Why does Kaepernick, whose career and stats from just last year far outpace many of the quarterbacks starting in the league today, not have a job? Skepticism can get you there, but it cannot be taught.

Nor can the pointlessness of spite. Spite is a darkness within us, and in the wake of the protests on the field this weekend, numerous fans across the country have taken toburning their NFL apparel, in their own form of counter-protest. How do you teach someone the toxic nature of such a gesture? You cannot. That would take self-awareness.

Self-awareness, alas, cannot be taught. I watch sports to escape, you might say. I don’t want politics to be mixed up with my entertainment. But being able to offer this opinion demonstrates a lack of understanding about one’s own place in the social fabric of the country. Avoiding politics is an option that only people who by the accident and happenstance of their default identity even have. For many in America, people of color in particular, their very daily existence is de facto politicized. Asking them not to talk about it, or worse, castigating them for doing so, is an act of grandiose delusion on your part. Please stop forcing me to see things for how they are, you say, because I do not want to know what it says about who I am.

But no one can teach you that. I cannot. Colin Kaepernick cannot. The lessons of the protest at hand in America cannot be taught by anyone. But they can be learned.