Moving the Goalposts

While watching all the protests during the NFL games this weekend, I felt an emotion that I'm sure is shared by many; I felt frustrated. I watched the players kneel, watched the owners and commentators support them or choose not to, and as I did, I felt an almost overwhelming urge to bang my head into my desk until sweet sweet unconsciousness took me away from the stupidity. But I didn't do that; I chose to write instead.

While the frustration I feel may be similar to that felt by many others the reason for it is quite different. I'm not angry at the players; in fact, I support them completely. The players taking a knee are correct in doing so, and they would remain correct if the protests were much more disruptive. I appreciate their respect for the game, and the country, but even if they chose to respect neither, anyone really looking at their concerns would be hard pressed to shame them for a response that is dwarfed by the size and scope of the offenses perpetrated against them.

Today, in honor of the protests, I am going to discuss some of these issues in football terms, beginning with the playbook used by those who so often and so successfully control and steer these arguments. It's a playbook with only a single play in it, but before I share that play, it's important to understand the down and distance.

To begin, we need to know that racial injustice is a real and pervasive problem in the United States. Anyone arguing otherwise has a Tiki torch in their closet. The evidence of this is so clear, and has been for so long, that even having to state it as a premise for this discussion is, in itself, an embarrassment.

While this is well known and widely accepted as true, that doesn't mean we have any plans to do anything about it. In fact, when the subject comes up, white America will do almost anything not to engage in the discussion. When the subject is forced into our lives by the guys we root for on Sundays, an odd kind of panic sets in and we scramble for something, anything else to talk about.

Enter the playbook, and its single play. It's called "Change the Subject," and it never fails. Any time we find ourselves stuck in a conversation we don't want to have, or an argument that we might lose, we can shift the discussion to one in which we might have a better chance of winning. We can't deny the existence of racial injustice, nor can we diminish the size and scope of the problem, so instead we accuse the protesters of being unpatriotic, which is both disingenuous and highly ironic given the fact that dissent and protest are precisely what the country is built upon. This is how a protest about systemic racism and brutality turns into this:

Before we discuss the nonsensical ramblings Donald Trump, it's important to know that his methods are not new, and he's only doing it because he knows it will work. We can be easily distracted because we want to be; white America is so frightened by this conversation that we will back any divisive force that will provide us a bit of pass blocking so we can feel safe, protected, and above all, not responsible. And this happens almost every time the subject comes up; to find examples, we don't have to go back very far:

  • In Charlottesville, just weeks ago, a white supremacist killed American Heather Heyer, who was protesting peacefully against the very thing we're discussing today. In response to her murder, we had a national discussion about statues.
  • In June of 2015, Dylan Roof walked into a black church in South Carolina and killed eight people. In response to this hate crime, we had a national discussion about the confederate flag.

Our response to recent NFL protests is no different. As always, we are shifting the conversation away from its original intent, and toward something, anything that allows us to avoid the hard discussion we simply won't allow ourselves to have.

So instead, we chatter. We bicker. We talk about spoiled athletes and all the success we have allowed them to enjoy, as if that success were ours to give. And at the same time, we have both removed Colin Kaepernick from his own movement, and also proved him correct, as odd as that may sound. By stealing the argument and making it about the flag, and about the anthem, we have once again executed our playbook to perfection. The subject has officially been changed. Now we're talking about who does and does not appreciate this country, just like we did in the run up to the Iraq War, when anyone who thought it was a bad idea to start a decades-long conflict instantly became someone who didn't "support the troops" and a hard decision that has cost millions of lives was reduced by President George Bush to this simple binary: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." Put a pin in that one, because we're probably going to be having this discussion again very soon.

I've been throwing around a lot of words, so perhaps it's time to make a point. Here it is: Our collective ignorance and willingness to be distracted has real world, life and death consequences. If we won't discuss major issues in real terms, if we simply allow ourselves to be controlled by those who use our divisions as a way to garner votes and ratings, the results can and eventually will be catastrophic. We may see a bunch of privileged rich athletes kneeling on a football field, but the people moving the goalposts see a nation of puppets aching for someone powerful to pull our strings, and as always, they are more than happy to oblige.

Contributing Editor: Brett Pransky

Brett Pransky is a rabid humanitarian with a sharp pen and a graduate degree in Rhetoric - a truly dangerous animal. His natural habitat is the halls of Ohio University, but he can be found on Twitter now and again as well, @BrettPransky.

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