My husband is a HUGE NFL fan and last Sunday I happily joined him as he got to watch his team – the Baltimore Ravens – play for the first time at Wembley.  What I didn’t anticipate, other than the team’s woeful performance, was that the players’ choice to kneel or link arms during the American national anthem, would spark outrage from fans, inflame political debate and occupy media headlines and social media channels in the days to follow.

So, what’s it all about?  Over a year ago Colin Kaepernick, then with the San Francisco 49ers, sat down during the national anthem in an attempt to provoke debate over race and police brutality.  He explained his actions by saying: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.  To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.  There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

After his choice to sit he changed his mind and decided to kneel during the national anthem in order to show more respect to former and current US military members while still maintaining his peaceful protest against what the US represents.

In September 2016 when Terence Crutcher and Keither Lamout Scott were shot by police, Kaepernick made an open statement saying that was exactly what his protest was about.  Since then many players across NFL teams have followed his lead since the beginning of the NFL 2017/18 season and last week Trump exacerbated the issue by commenting: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag to say: ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.  Out! He’s Fired! He’s Fired!’” What a classy President.

So, Sunday rolls around and with a packed stadium of 90,000 plus viewers around the world tuning in to see the Jacksonville Jaguars ‘host’ the Baltimore Ravens at Wembley, almost all players knelt or linked arms – including the Jaguars’ owner Shahid Khan, in an act of defiance against Trump’s comments and show of solidarity in their belief that the principles of the American flag are not being withheld, not least by the President of the United States.

Rather than addressing the issues that have inspired players to ‘take a knee’ Trump has focussed solely on producing inflamed rhetoric about players disrespecting their country, flag, and by association the Armed Forces.  As such Americans are divided in their response to this protest, many feeding off Trump’s disrespect ‘play’ and turning their back on their teams by burning jerseys and memorabilia – the hash tag #BurnTheNFL playing its part to encourage others to follow suit.

However, other fans remain neutral while the protest gets taken up by other cultural spheres.  Stevie Wonder announced: I’m taking a knee for America before a concert in New York on Saturday and he’s been quickly followed by the likes of Pharrell and John Legend.  No one is criticising these artists of using their platform to disrespect the people that died for Americans’ freedoms and yet players are being villainised for exercising the same first amendment rights.  In response to Sunday’s Wembley game Leonard Fournette of the Jacksonville Jaguars commented: “If we have the stage, if we have the voice, use it, but use it for the right reasons.”

These players are using their position to support a cause rife with political debate, steeped in controversy and unlikely to do their careers many favours (Kaepernick was not signed with a team for the 2017 season).  It is a conversation that needed to air, be highlighted and shared across international waters so that it didn’t remain brushed under the table, and this is what would be a true affront to the Star Spangled Flag and the principles that it upholds. John Legend perhaps says it most accurately when he said: “Protest is patriotic…If we quell protest in the name of patriotism, we are not patriots.  We are tyrants.”

Trump is seemingly disallowing these athletes to protest as citizens or even as public figures, but rather as employees of a large commercial entity.  Why, then, are other talents – singers and artists in particular not held just as accountable and attacked so forcefully by the President? Political statements can be readily heard from popular artists across the airwaves – think Snoop Dogg’s ‘Lavender – and artworks much more explicitly ‘disrespectful’ to national symbols such as the Statue of Liberty’s face being replaced with a vagina by artist Daniela Raytchev.  Do we see record labels being told to sack their artists? Art galleries encouraged to not deal with artists who dare to speak out through their work? No, we don’t.

It is clear that this is not a conversation that is going to fade away.  As John Legend goes on to say about these protests: “They are a demand that we Americans make this country’s reality match its proud symbolism.” So let’s watch this space and see how this issue plays out.

If you’d like to read about less controversial events that have taken place within the leisure and events industry, feel free to browse The Tonic Communication’s case studies here.