NFL Protests and the Hard Work of Critical Thinking


After a rough night of caring for our two, sick little ones, my wife and I started our day at 5:30am with another chorus of coughing and whining. After much ado, they were eating breakfast and I took a moment to browse the social media headlines to see what was happening in the world. Hurricanes barreling through the South! Carmelo Anthony traded to OKC! North Korea is threatening nuclear war! Donald Trump blasts NFL anthem protestors: "Get that son of a bitch off the field!"1. I put my phone down; I wish I never picked it up.

Life in America today is complex and exhausting. In virtually every aspect of public and private life, we are confronted with issues that demand our opinion and participation, whether we want to play or not. The problem we face is that to think critically and objectively about just one of these issues, requires a focused effort and energy that, at best, most people just don't regularly have. Yet, play is a basic psychological need2 so we naturally look to diversions that can smooth out (or distract us from) the bumps on our journey through increasingly rocky terrain; this is a normal, natural part of human life. While the options are many, my guess is that among varied groups of people, you're likely to see "sports" near the top of the list and, in America, there's no panacea quite like professional football.

In a complicated world, the beauty of pro football lies, ironically, in its primal simplicity: the communal bond of my tribe, the pomp and spectacle, the energy of the crowd, the visceral competition out of which great champions rise. As an NFL alumnus, my excitement for pro sports has waned some, but these aspects still remain my favorite parts of the game. Football's broad appeal is surprisingly universal...and corporations, advertisers, and governments already know that.

In an age where everything is politicized, the last bastion of good, old, American fun can't expect to remain unscathed. While most have forgotten the original reason for Kaepernick's protest, the latest events in the year-long saga have brought our nation's biggest sociopolitical issues right into the middle of the last place of "rest" for many Americans...and we're all better for it.

The nature of non-violent protest is inconvenience that arrests your attention. Yet, this is not rain on your day off or a long line at the coffee shop; you shouldn't merely take issue that people are protesting. You've got to ask "Why?", ditch your assumptions, and actually value the answers of your equal, imperfect, fellow citizens, who are appropriately exercising their rights through the most impactful channels they have. This takes a level of empathy that is uncomfortable without prior practice, yet it's necessary for anything lasting of value to materialize in public discourse. We cannot run from this. The issues are not going anywhere and, just like life, the solutions will likely be multilayered, complex...and exhausting.

To quote Scott Hanselman, "If you're starting a sentence with 'Why don't you just...' then it's very likely you don't understand the complexity of the problem."