Silent, non-violent protests during the US national anthem at professional sporting events have now reached the public’s attention. And everyone seems to have either a strong opinion, or a VERY strong opinion. As the head coach of a sports team, I need to be aware of, and prepared for, somebody on our team following this example.
A swim coaching forum that I follow recently had a discussion about what we would do if one of our swimmers took a knee during the national anthem at a swim meet. Within 2 days there were over 500 responses. It was fascinating to see the diversity of opinion. Professional coaches managed to come down on every possible side of the issue. This just goes to show how complicated it is.
Full Disclosure: For those who don’t know me, I’m a white, Canadian male. While in most discussions I consider this to be irrelevant. That isn’t the case here. I have no way of understanding the inherent hardships and struggles that people of colour or non-Christians go through.
Regarding the swim coaching forum and the hypothetical question, the most common views were as follows:
- some coaches said they would question the swimmer taking a knee to see if they knew why they were doing it, or were they only copying what they saw on TV. I got a sense that the coaches were looking to ‘correct’ the decision made by the swimmer.
- some coaches said they would ask the swimmer to find some other way to protest. This was the most interesting to me, as the coaches basically wanted the swimmers to find a different time and place to protest, and usually a time and place that did NOT involve disrespecting the flag. And incidentally, those times and places also wouldn’t involve the swim team.
- some coaches said flat out that they wouldn’t put up with it. Any swimmer taking a knee would be off the team
- some coaches said they’d stand by their swimmer, including talking to them about their decision if the swimmer wanted
Emotions are high about this, mainly because the protests are very public, and happen during moments dedicated to the national flag and the national anthem. Any disrespect at that time would appear to be disrespecting the military, and the country at large. That can be hard to swallow for anyone who doesn’t live the injustices that come with being of a person of colour. And that can be a very hard pill to swallow for those who know someone in the military who has lost their life defending their country.
The issue is that protests are NOT meant to be convenient or comfortable. They are meant to be jarring; to let us know that something is wrong. It’s so easy to say that these non-violent protests should not take place at these very public times. But the reality is that this is exactly when protests are most effective. These NFL protests have galvanized a national (and international) conversation that clearly is necessary. I seriously doubt that there are any convenient or comfortable non-violent protests that could have achieved the same.
After reading through those 500+ posts, and following up with the national conversation taking place, I find that my perspective is pretty straightforward.
I feel that coaches are more like teachers than dictators. Issues represent opportunities to learn and grow. Complex issues represent even better opportunities.
If a swimmer wishes to quietly kneel during our anthem, I will completely respect and support their right to do so. Afterwards I’ll ask if there’s anything they want to talk about. Hopefully this would lead to a discussion that would help both of us understand each other better.