Opinion: What it meant for AFL players to ‘take a knee’ this weekend

Taking a risk


Protests are, by definition, risky. The aim of a protest is to draw attention to injustice. You’re wanting to challenge the status-quo, to upset the apple-cart. You’re in someone’s face, defiant of whatever society may deem inappropriate behaviour, and prepared to accept the consequences. The anti-racism protesters from the previous weekend were willing to take some risks. Defying government permission to even be on Melbourne’s streets, they risked getting fined, getting sick, and being blamed for spreading the COVID-19 virus through the community.



Yet what did AFL players risk in their protest against systemic racism, by placing one knee on the ground before playing their games of footy this weekend? I would suggest, precisely nothing. Their actions were already given the official tick of approval from the AFL. Their lowering of one knee looked like a gentle, unified hamstring stretch at the end of their warm ups. They were even careful to keep 1.5 metres apart from each other while doing it, so as to comply with health regulations. No one was putting their careers on the line. It was all about as risky as dancing with your sister. The greatest risk was if anyone refused to comply with the statement, and not bow down along with the peer pressure.



By contrast, Adam Goodes raised his voice, just a few times, to protest injustice. Look at the risks he took, and how much it cost him, deeply and personally. It cost the back end of his career. He was effectively driven out of the sport. The two Brownlow and two Premiership medals hanging around his neck didn’t count for anything. He lost all status, along with his love for the game. Going forward, the number of years it will take for Goodes to recover his standing, and regain the honour and recognition that he deserves for his stand-out career will be a measure for how far we are, as a society or even as a sporting community, from achieving real racial harmony.




What really is ‘taking a knee’?


The first person to ‘take a knee’ in this sense within the sporting world was San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. In 2016, he refused to stand up during the national anthem, as a protest to highlight racial injustice and the blight of police brutality. Understanding that US culture is very different to Australian culture, where the national anthem is played before every single game, his continual protest of kneeling during the anthem was said to be an insult to the 50 stars and 13 stripes on the US flag. He was reminded of how many US soldiers had died to protect the honour of that flag. He was accused of insulting the police, who we know by-and-large are good people, who risk their lives daily to protect those in their community. Yet he continued his defy the flag, week after week. In retribution, fans in large numbers were refusing to watch the games on TV unless Kaepernick and others were brought into line. And so, just like Adam Goodes, Kaepernick was disposed of by the back door, his career prematurely ended.



Kaepernick knew the risk involved in his protest, and he paid for it dearly. If the AFL players on the weekend were prepared to do something as severe as refuse to stand for the national anthem, and dared to defy footy fans, and put the finances of the League and likewise their own careers at risk, only then might their actions be worthy of the phrase ‘taking a knee’.




Police brutality


Were Kaepernick’s protests justified in 2016? The statistics on black deaths at the hands of police are continually punted from end to end. The numbers are out of proportion with the percentages of black people in the population, some say, but blacks figure more highly in violent crime statistics, attracting more attention from police, is the response. Whatever the numbers, the feelings of discrimination are haunting, if not only for the memory of individual cases. Take the example from 2014 of Tamir Rice, the boy who was shot and killed by police arriving in a patrol car, while holding an imitation handgun in a park. The emergency 911 caller explained that they suspected he was only a boy playing with a toy gun, but that information was not passed on to the patrol car by the 911 dispatcher. The 12 year-old was big for his age, and the gun looked real. Details generally become clouded and controverted, an excuse for police is usually found, and juries are reluctant to convict.



While Kaepernick and the other players’ protests could have been ignored in the past, the brutal death of George Floyd under the knee of law enforcement was incontrovertible. No responsible police officer ever rests their knee on someone’s neck in such circumstances, even momentarily. The images were impossible to ignore. On Thursday June 4, a collection of the National Football League’s star players, including Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, released their own video demanding acknowledgement on the part of the NFL that their protests now be taken seriously.



The video asks the League bosses, what would it take for you to listen? Must one of us be murdered by police brutality? The players ask, what if I were George Floyd? These megastars of the sport then self-identify with victims: I am George Floyd; I am Tamir Rice; I am Treyvon Martin; I am Michael Brown Jnr; and numerous others. These NFL players were taking a risk. For they make a specific request of the NFL, and what will the young stars of the game do if the NFL doesn’t comply? Will the players themselves be declared off-side? The players insisted that the NFL make the following statement.



‘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.’



The very next day, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell responded with a message containing these exact words, as requested. While Goodell decried violence, racism and intolerance, he was more hesitant about actually criticising police. Goodell’s concession also did not mention any apology to Kaepernick, who is still the elephant in the room, as he’s still out of a job. The NFL conspired to keep him out of the sport, though some say public sentiment may have now changed sufficiently for one of the team owners to welcome him into their franchise, despite the controversy he would bring. Just like Adam Goodes, Kaepernick’s absence from the sport is the reminder that the part progress made in race relations cannot yet be viewed as legitimate. The reality of the racist undercurrents left over from a lamentable past, means our nations are still distant from achieving our full aspirations.




The politics of the matter


The AFL players, all unified in their stance, or non-stance while down on one knee, would mostly be unacquainted with American culture and the deep politicisation of this whole affair. Before COVID-19 President Trump’s popularity rating made his November re-election ambition look almost unstoppable. I’m convinced that the timing of all these anti-racism protests and rallies, six months before an election, are no coincidence, but an opportunity for the Democrats to gain some ground.



Nobody active in politics supports racism, yet there is a clear delineation within the American cultural divide. Democrat voters are vocal and clearly behind the slogan Black Lives Matter. Traditionally, their wish is to see the black community voting as a block. Republican voters prefer to refrain from emphasising black versus white cultural differences, as ‘we are all Americans’. For them, racism exists because we keep talking about it. If we stopped talking about racial divides, then we might forget about skin colour, and we can be free to treat each other as one race, one community. Race debates are a well-worn path in American politics. American voters are quite familiar with how the narrative plays itself out, even if it’s not so well understood by Australian Rules footballers.



Trump made derogatory remarks in 2017 about NFL players who kneel during the anthem, leading to widespread kneeling that season. So it’s clear where he stands on players fully respecting the national anthem. Meanwhile, the NFL have released any restrictions on their players to protest. So the stage for the November election is being built.



I do not want to be so cynical as to doubt the good intentions of our AFL footballers, who sincerely believe their protest will count for something in this complex world of race relations. Every little ounce of goodwill might be of some use in our efforts to increase cultural understanding, and allow us to dissolve our ethnic divisions.



Being a little partial towards someone from my own ethnic history, as someone who is born is South Africa though having grown up in Australia, I’ll give the last word to 2016 Norm Smith medalist, Bulldogs defender Jason Johannisen, who spent the first eight years of his life in South Africa, who said last week that, he was ‘done doing nothing. All I ask for you to do is simply, with an open heart, just listen and understand what people of colour have been through.’




Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

About Michael Viljoen

Michael was born in the Nelson Mandela Bay area, the same as Siya Kolisi, the successful World Cup winning Springbok captain, but was raised in Melbourne with a love for Australian Rules. He has worked as a linguist in Africa with Wycliffe Bible Translators Australia, where he wrote a booklet on the history of Cameroon's Indomitable Lions, which was translated into several Cameroonian languages.

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