A cheerleader for the San Francisco 49ers took a knee during a performance of the national anthem before a home game Thursday against the Oakland Raiders.
The woman, who has not yet been identified, knelt, pompoms in hand, while the other members of the cheerleading squad stood during the anthem. The 49ers were the team for which Colin Kaepernick played, when the quarterback became the first NFL player to decline to stand for the anthem as a way of protesting racial injustice and police brutality.
Kaepernick inspired other NFL players and athletes in other sports to emulate his example, even as he was shunned by the league after becoming a free agent in March 2017. The protests became a major issue for the NFL, largely because they were frequently and sharply criticized by President Trump, but the controversy has died down considerably this season, with only a handful of players staging protests of any sort during pregame renditions of the anthem.
While some cheerleaders at the college level have knelt during the anthem, this is believed to be the first time one has done so in the NFL. The 49ers did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a story last year by ELLE about why no NFL cheerleaders were participating in the protests, some of them pointed to the culture of their world. Cheerleaders are expected to exude positive energy at all times, they said — and they also know that their job security is tenuous at best.
“I’m not shocked that they are not protesting,” a former cheerleader told ELLE. “It’s not that we women don’t have an opinion; we have opinions. Many of us have other jobs while we are cheering, there are doctors and politicians out there on the field. We do this because we love to dance, and our job as cheerleaders isn’t to create controversy. It’s to make everyone happy.”
Five cheerleaders for Kennesaw State University knelt during a performance of the national anthem in September 2017, and the Atlanta-area school responded by barring the whole group from taking the field until after the song had been played before upcoming games.
Amid an outcry from KSU students and increasing national attention, the school changed its policy and allowed the cheerleaders back onto the field during the anthem. The story resurfaced in August, however, when four of the five cheerleaders failed to make the cut for the 2018 squad.
A cheerleader for Georgia Tech also made headlines by kneeling during the anthem in 2016. “I saw Kaepernick’s protest and I saw his statement about why he was doing it — to show solidarity with people who had been affected by police brutality and racial injustices and bringing light to conversation,” the cheerleader, Raianna Brown said last year (via Teen Vogue). “But the catalyst for me was the killing of Terence Crutcher.”
“I sent my coach a text message and spoke with her and told her I was going to kneel at the game and I told her why — to bring light to this important issue and take a stand,” she continued, “by kneeling on something I believe is very important but isn’t discussed all the time.”
In May, the NFL announced a new policy on pregame conduct while on the field, in which all league personnel were mandated to “stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem,” with players given the option of remaining in the locker room. However, the league suspended that policy in July as it attempted to come to an agreement with the players' union; those talks are ongoing and thus the previous policy, which states that players “should” stand for the anthem, remains in place.
Among the few players who have continued to stage protests this season is the Dolphins’ Kenny Stills, who has been kneeling during the anthem since the 2016 season, although he did not do so before Miami’s most recent game because he was injured and did not make the road trip to Houston. In a recently released mini-documentary, Stills referred to the “hate” toward and “senseless killings” of black men, saying, “I don’t feel like myself, or people that look like me, are being represented by that song, and by that moment.”
Of the many vitriolic messages he has received since starting his demonstrations, Stills said, “I still can’t understand the amount of hatred toward somebody that’s basically asking everyone to feel compassionate about others. The protest was never against anybody. This protest was really just trying to hold us accountable for things that we say we believe in. It’s about equality, it’s about justice for all.”
(H/T Yahoo Sports)
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