Before an NFL preseason game in 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem in protest of police brutality and racial inequality. He is out of the NFL now, but when the 2017 season began, other players picked up his cause.

These public displays led President Trump, on September 23, at a political rally in Alabama, to urge NFL owners to fire players who protest for showing, “a total disrespect to our flag and country.”

The NFL responded with a swift show of unity as players, coaches, and owners of virtually every team in the league shot back, kneeling or locking arms during the anthem in defiance.

Although many football fans booed at the player demonstration, supporters argued the players were simply using their freedom of speech.

As the controversy spreads throughout social media and the news, Mason students and student athletes have begun to express stands of their own.

“While it is important to respect the flag and anthem, what’s happening in the NFL is about people seeking change and I think that’s a good thing,” said junior Shannon Rogers, an active participant in GM Theater productions.

“Protesting is the most patriotic thing a person can do,” offered GMHS junior Miles Jackson.

“I don’t have a problem with [NFL players kneeling] because they are using their first amendment right and standing up for what they believe in,” agreed Aidan Clark, a junior tight end and linebacker who has been a part of the GMHS football program since his 8th grade year.

Many students also argued that players are bettering the nation, not going against its values and heritage.

“People say the protests or the players kneeling or staying in the locker room during the national anthem are unpatriotic,” said Sigrid Edson, a member of the GMHS band and swim team. “I would say they are showing an act of patriotism in that when you love your country, you do what you can to make it better and to better represent the people who are a part of it.”

“I agree with what they are doing because it is their right to protest and stand up for what they believe in,” echoed senior Kalena Wojtala, senior captain of the GMHS field hockey team.

The response to President Trump’s reaction spread beyond the NFL to include other sports. In the NBA, superstar celebrity basketball players Steph Curry and LeBron James both voiced their disagreements with the president.

A tweet from LeBron james

However, Kaepernick’s original movement – taking a knee to protest police brutality against African-Americans – has begun to spiral away from its original intent, and morphed into a message about unity.

As Wojtala explained, “The original protest has been twisted into disrespect for the flag, nation, and military, which is not what it is about at all.”

While some still see the protests as following Kaepernick’s initial stand or a way to defy president Trump, many athletes have stated they are simply standing by their teammates and supporting their right to express their opinions. As New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees said, “The decision to kneel … prior to the anthem and then everyone stand up together, number one, it shows solidarity and unity for us as a team.”

Much like when a player is hurt on the field and the team and crowd are silenced and kneel, these players want to show they support their team and work in solidarity as one unit.

As the issue unfolds and evolves, the idea of unity is also top of mind for Mason students.

The day before a home football game, players often walk the halls in their red Mason jerseys while cheerleaders sport their matching uniforms. This tradition stirs excitement among the student body and puts anticipation in the air for the upcoming night, creating a sense of spirit that pulls students of different interests together to cheer for a common cause.

When asked about the importance of unity—in football or any team sport—Clark explained, “In football, everybody relies on each other. You’re doing your own thing, but you also need to rely on everybody else to do what they need to be doing. No matter how good one player is, they still need the other 10 people on the field all working together.”

In addition to unity, leadership plays an integral role to any successful team. The captain of the team has a duty to set an example and ensure the team comes together as one unit.

“The captains are the people you look toward and follow,” said Clark. “Before practice, they are already down [on the field] practicing and during school they make sure everyone is doing the right thing and staying out of trouble because they don’t want them to jeopardize the team.”

As Clark explained, captains serve as role models for their teammates both on and off the field or court, making sure that everyone stands by one another in any situation. Unity and leadership are an essential part of making the atmosphere of any team sport welcoming and enjoyable.

“If we never worked together as a team to get things done, everything would fall apart at the seams,” said GMHS softball player Diamond Williams. “Our cooperation and the fact that we back each other up no matter what is what makes the experience worthwhile, win or lose.”

Emphasizing unity no matter what the score is, is common across Mason teams.

“It’s not only about the wins and the losses, but playing for each other and with each other. Unity is important in any sport, we start to understand each other and become a family,” explained Wojtala. “We have to have one another’s backs or else it’s hard to find success.”

The idea of unity is a huge part of life at Mason in general and is not just limited to sports.

“If you don’t work as a unit, you aren’t efficient,” said Rodgers, referring to the cast and crew of Mason productions. “Especially in theater where we all have to work together to create something we love.”

 Students at Mason may not be in a position to wage a nationwide protest the scale of the current NFL, but they do foster a sense of unity by sticking together and supporting one another, whether cheering for the home team, attending a school band concert, or turning out for opening night of the play. Just like the NFL, each Mason student brings individual talents and strengths and relies on other students to execute those strengths to the best of their ability, creating a strong, unified team.

 

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