Policing Black Athletes

Racial Disconnect in Sports

by Vernon L. Andrews (Author)
©2020 Textbook XXXVIII, 286 Pages


"Why isn’t sport played the way it used to be played, when football was for men who loved America, who saluted the flag, and who respected our men in blue and our troops by standing—and not kneeling—for our National Anthem!" This sentiment permeates American football today, and represents the feelings of many fans who can appreciate their Black heroes, but find the issue of "Blackness" via the two extremes of celebratory expression and protest, regressive. "This should be about sport, not politics," many feel. The author concurs. As much as we may wish the sporting arena didn't have to be the last battlefield for Civil Rights, here we are. This book explores how conflicts over diversity, culture, inclusion, exclusion, protest and control have been played out over the twentieth century in various sports and institutions. Are there lessons to be learned from our overlapping—though at times, separate—cultural histories of Black and White? This book is about how we learn to act when in public and when playing sports. Infused in this conversation is the ever-present policing of Black bodies in sport and society, and the disconnect we have as citizens living in the same country perpetually divided by race. Interwoven throughout are solutions for moving forward.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword: The Ripple Effect of Colin Kaepernick—Within and beyond the NFL
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Meet Your New Neighbor, Richard Sherman
  • 1. “Act Like You’ve Been There Before!” The Age-Old Taunt of White Privilege
  • 2. Exploring Sports Conduct and Cultural Identity
  • 3. The Illegal Use of Black Expression: Before and After Muhammad Ali
  • 4. The Interwoven Fabric of African American Sport, Church, and Community
  • 5. Some Blacks Don’t Dance and Some Blacks Don’t Shout
  • 6. Good & Bad Sportsmanship: Walter Camp, Hobey Baker, and Muhammad Ali
  • 7. How White People Think
  • 8. White Homes, Rural Settings and Reflections on Celebration Rules
  • 9. Humility Abroad: New Zealand Sport, Women and the Tall Poppy Syndrome
  • 10. Fans, Celebrations, and NCAA Rules
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

←vi | vii→


The Ripple Effect of Colin Kaepernick—Within and Beyond the NFL

Colin Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem. In modern patriotic America, Kaepernick did the social equivalent of sitting on the front of the bus in Alabama in 1955. And you know what happened after Rosa Parks got bold and refused to “stay in her place.” After the social activist decision to sit down during the Star-Spangled Banner on the sidelines during the San Francisco Forty-Niners third preseason game in August of 2016, he stated very clearly after the game the intent of his actions:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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.1

Kaepernick made the decision to kneel during the anthem in the final preseason game—and for the remainder of the 2016 season. He switched to kneeling on the advice of a former NFL player and U.S. military veteran, Nate Boyer. Kap’s decision to kneel was to honor and respect former and current military members who fought and died for that flag … while still protesting police brutality.2 As the familiar African American saying goes, he was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

←vii | viii→

Figure F.1. Where it all began. Colin Kaepernick (on the right) and Eric Reid, brothers in arms. Source: Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The first ripple of activism, like the toss of a pebble into a lake, hit teammate Eric Reid, who decided he would kneel with Kaepernick during that last preseason game and for the remainder of the season. Reid’s reasoning was that:

Things have happened in Louisiana and the injustices that are happening could have happened to one of my family members. It touched close to home [Reid is from Baton Rouge, the site the 2016 unarmed shooting by cops of Alton Sterling, and the subsequent shooting of six police officers], and I just wanted to show my support to him [Kaepernick] and let him know that he is not the only person who feels the way he feels. There are a lot of people out there that feel that way.3

Reid might also agree with Kaepernick’s follow-up statement, intended to preempt any confusion as to what he was not doing:

Once again, I’m not anti-American. I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better. I think having these ←viii | ix→conversations helps everybody have a better understanding of where everybody is coming from.4

Part of the “everybody” he was referring to is the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, started by three African American women who were tired of police brutality and unwarranted shooting deaths. More on BLM, later.

I give quizzes to my students on occasion. Right about here is where I’d quiz them. Here is your quiz, instead:

(1) Why did Colin Kaepernick sit during the national anthem? (2) Why did Kaepernick switch to kneel during the playing of the anthem? (3) Why did Eric Reid join Kaepernick in protest? (4) Did Colin Kaepernick hate America? (5) Was Colin Kaepernick’s intent to disrespect police, American war veterans, current deployed military, or first-responders?

The answers would seem to be straightforward. But this is America, and we are so divided at times over social issues that we, on occasion, choose to frame incidents in ways that sometimes contradict the facts. We see and hear what best suits our view. I do it all the time when I hear of O.J. Simpson or Michael Jackson; I don’t want to believe either of those two people did anything wrong. My feelings are not rational. My feelings are emotional. I want those two to represent athletic and musical talent and good Black men. To say ill of those two is to speak ill of all Black men.

So, I put my hands on my ears and hum a song to myself, so I don’t hear any of the bad. I am self-aware enough to know that what I am doing is silly and flawed. But many Americans did that same silly and flawed act when Kaepernick kneeled and said, “America is not perfect.”

Our Stars and Stripes Are Sacred to Flag Patriots

For well over two years (2016–2018) debate raged in the USA about the intent of Colin Kaepernick’s social protest and the unintended consequences of kneeling in front of our sacred symbolism in the United States—the flag. I understand how those steeped in patriotism worship the flag in the USA. Further, I understand how much “flag patriots” want everyone to worship that flag, too. I distinguish those who love our country with our “reservations” about its imperfections as “American Patriots” vs. those who are blind to every flaw and only see her as ←ix | x→perfect as “Flag Patriots.” Whether you are Black, Brown, naturalized citizen, Native American, LGBTQi+, or “fresh off the boat,”—100% compliance to the flag and our anthem shows the world we are a unified nation; indivisible.

This is the goal of the Flag Patriot—100% compliance—regardless of how you are treated. As a matter of fact, to the Flag Patriot, if you are treated badly, it was probably your own fault. The flag comes to symbolize everything right and good. One should covet the flag, love the flag, protect the flag and fight for the flag. Flag Patriots in America are the closest we get to the swastika flag-worshipping that befell Germany. When the symbol becomes more important than the lives of people … not good.

Kaepernick is an American Patriot, proud as anybody to live in America, but aware that at key times, dissent is a necessary element of any good democracy. Robert T. Martin (2015) speaks to our collective history in his book: Government by Dissent: Protest, Resistance, and Radical Democratic Thought in the Early American Republic, by reminding Flag Patriots that “American was born of dissent … from the framers to the farmers … the new nation made an unprecedented effort to theorize the place of dissent in democracy.”5

I remember dissent happened with a challenge to that flag in the fourth grade at Horace Mann elementary school by a little White boy in my class named Jeff. Heck, I guess we were all little. So little our parents had to tell us what to do. Jeff’s parents told him not to stand for the “Pledge of Allegiance” with the rest of us every morning. Jeff was a Jehovah’s Witness. His parents protested, noting their religion says they “Should not worship false idols.”

There was one key line that had Jeff sit: “One nation, under God …” Take God out of the anthem, and everything would have been fine for Jehovah Witnesses. Otherwise, pledging allegiance to the flag (as symbolic of God) was crossing a religious line. His parents petitioned. And won. Jeff sat down every day while we stared at him—wondering why we had to stand.

So, while most Whites back then in the 1960s saw the flag as a sign of national pride, others saw it as sacrilegious. Such is the nature of the signification of national symbols. Colin Kaepernick likely saw saluting the flag in a time of great social dissent as hypocritical. Our nation didn’t show respect for him or the many people of his skin color.

Kaepernick would be showing implicit agreement with everything the flag stood for if he continued to stand, and sing, and salute. Many would tell him that he should “hold whatever beliefs you have inside … keep your protests to yourself … this is not the time nor the place for social activism. This is a sacred moment.” And I completely understand that perspective. Those people screaming loudly ←x | xi→about staying in line and obeying the rules—even if they don’t benefit you—are akin to what it must have felt like to be German in Germany in the late 1930s … and of Jewish heritage. Do you “go with the flow” and look the other way, or do you stand up—or kneel—and say, “WTF!”

Yet another crowd—those Black and Brown people Kaepernick spoke of— would think,

Athletes are the most visible and ‘sacred’ public African Americans in the USA. Why would you continue to bury your head in the sand when the police are having target practice with Black and Brown bodies out here in the real world? Has your million-dollar salary bought your silence? Are you just like Michael Jordan in the 1980s and 1990s—only concerned about your paycheck and your “brand?”6

Hey White People: What’s the Best Way to Protest Police Murder?

Harsh criticism. Many would say athletes’ silence for decades was just that—condoning the violence around them. Others say that every Black, Brown and White person is just as guilty for not protesting loudly the targeted shooting of Black men and boys and the continued rape and abuse of Black women and girls by a small percentage of law enforcement officials that taint the entire police force.

You’d be forgiven if you were at a loss as to what to do. Many of us have been at a loss since the Civil War as to what to do in the face of social injustice. Do we appeal to our local congressman or woman? Do we fight each battle in court? Do we sit with the Sherriff and ask for instructions on how to act around White officers? Yes we do. Yes we have. Many would say it has gotten us nowhere.

That might be wrong. Many more Black and Brown men and women may have been killed had it not been for the struggle for civil rights—and continual battles with local police forces, letters and pleas to Congress, and Attorneys General reviews and law changes. But “surviving in terror” is no longer good enough. Mothers and fathers who bury their sons far too young and console their raped daughters can no longer live with, “Well, aren’t you glad your sister’s son isn’t dead, too?”

It does us little good to know that 100, not 500, defenseless Black and Brown people were shot dead. Colin Kaepernick decided that nobody was listening. That nobody watching their sports event really cared about the lives of victims outside the stadium.

←xi | xii→

He made a bet: “I’m betting more people in America care about the perfect symbolism of the anthem and the flag than they actually care about the murdered people. I bet they will pay attention when something they care about is disrespected. I’m betting they love their flag and their worship and their ‘rockets red glare’ more than they actually care about the lives that flag is supposed to represent.”

He was right.

Many U.S. citizens—especially football fans—were infuriated with Colin’s apparent disgrace of patriotism, his disrespect of American troops, veterans, and anything remotely related to America and her high ideals. People even said Kaepernick was disrespecting our “first responders.” Everyone who had ever served America was now rolling in his or her grave at this “high-paid, pampered athlete” showing ingratitude. “How dare he—after all America has given him!”

Before I completely slap those people and their comments to the curb, I want to say again—I understand. I understand because I’ve lived overseas for 14 years in New Zealand and know what it is to call America home. I now have two homes as I am also a New Zealand citizen. I know our red, white and blue are sacred colors, and our stars and stripes are beautiful symbolism that veterans of foreign wars marched behind and died holding onto. The same holds true for New Zealand veterans marching, defending, and dying for their flag.

True, I am both a “Kiwi and a Yankee” as they would say. That doesn’t mean that when American professors and students overseas get together, we don’t long for our country. We do. We barbeque, make American food, joke about our slang and favorite TV shows or our love for our childhood sports teams. Living abroad makes you appreciate the homeland just that little bit more.

So, I know how you feel when you say people should not disrespect that flag. But you should also realize that that flag represents me—my flesh and blood. My family. People. Lives. While the boundaries of the USA is the territory we share, humans within our country boundary are what that flag represents. With no people inhabiting the USA, the symbolism is useless. You put that flag on an island in the Pacific with no people, and the flag blows meaninglessly. The stars and stripes have been politically disembodied from the beautiful and conflicted people it is supposed to represent.

When we get to the moment when the flag does not represent people—but an idea disembodied from people—a symbol, then it is worthless … no more valuable than a rusty military tank sitting face down in a ditch.

And when our flag becomes a symbol—more than the representation of people and a cause—then the worship we give it is meaningless. We will then love the flag simply because we love the flag. Because we are told to love the flag. And we ←xii | xiii→make believe what it represents, like children looking at a Christmas tree—and thinking of a perfect baby Jesus. The tree is just a big piece of wood from the forest. But we can make it mean so much more in our minds. Like the flag means to so many Flag Patriots.

And woe unto the man or woman or child who disrespects what the flag represents—perfection and unity of a nation. It matters little if we really ARE a perfect union. What matters is that we make believe that we are unified. Like a wife standing with her abusive husband at church holds his hand and snuggles up next to him hoping that her affection will stop his oppressive behavior. This time.

As congregants in that church we really don’t care if that unity—that tormented marriage—is imperfect. We just want you to pretend that your marriage is perfect. So we don’t have to think about it.

Colin said no. “This marriage of the police and the people they are sworn to protect is not a perfect union. This marriage is flawed. And I want to let everybody who is pretending know that I no longer want to pretend.” And so he decided on a very, very simple form of protest: Kneeling during the national anthem before football games.

Standing in the Face of Our Horrific History in the USA

Kaepernick, like most Americans who know our U.S. history, is well aware that the problems between police and Black and Brown bodies is nothing new. This terrorizing has gone on for decades. Dating back to the post-Civil War period, Black bodies have been brutalized by both the criminal justice system—and everyday Americans. Thousands of African Americans were shot, hung or burned after the Civil War “for the sheer love of killing.”7 Victor Kappeler discusses the targeting of African Americans for abuse, especially in the South:

In no small part because of the tradition of slavery, Blacks have long been targets of abuse. The use of patrols to capture runaway slaves was one of the precursors of formal police forces, especially in the South. This disastrous legacy persisted as an element of the police role even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In some cases, police harassment simply meant people of African descent were more likely to be stopped and questioned by the police, while at the other extreme, they have suffered beatings, and even murder, at the hands of White police. Questions still arise today about the disproportionately high numbers of people of African descent killed, beaten, and arrested by police in major urban cities of America.8

←xiii | xiv→For decades after the Civil War, Black Americans were open fodder for all sorts of abuse in public by Whites during Jim Crow segregation, during the Civil Rights Movement, and thereafter by police in every corner of this country. Slavery has left a long legacy of trauma—for Whites, who still feel aggrieved that they lost their free labor, free sexual exploitation of Black women, and the perpetual feeling of superiority that stems from treating Black people as 3/5th human. K.B Turner, David Giacopassi and Margaret Vandiver note,

The literature clearly establishes that a legally sanctioned law enforcement system existed in America before the Civil War for the express purpose of controlling the slave population and protecting the interests of slave owners. The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore … the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.9

If we skip ahead past all of the injustices of the late nineteenth century—on through the multiple wrongful deaths at the hands of police in all the decades of the twentieth century, there was a moment when we could have righted the ship. When we could have made a statement as a country that, indeed, wrong was being done and we needed to stop it.

What Rodney King Represented to Black People

When Los Angeles police beat Rodney King after a speeding stop, we watched the videotape in horror—but with a sense of hope. Odd, I know. Hope—because that videotape finally vindicated all that we had been saying for over a century: That Black people get an ass-whuppin by cops as if we were animals. We saw with our own eyes a gang of cops taking turns beating down a defenseless man on the ground as if he was target practice for their batons. Every bit of frustration in their cop lives was let loose on Rodney. Mr. King took the physical abuse for the rest of us. King was written off by most Whites because he was running from the law and high at the time. But what if we substitute Martin Luther King? What if it was him on the ground being beaten? We would have lost our minds.

Nonetheless, the beat-down was caught on film and our nation would finally think, “Hey, maybe Black people have a point here. Maybe they weren’t always guilty of aggression or wrongdoing. Maybe we should look into more cases of ←xiv | xv→brutality we often hear about.” Hallelujah! We collectively thought we had the cops cold: They would finally be guilty of excessive force.

When a predominantly White jury from a community dense with police residents in Simi Valley, California, decided that there was no abuse, and that the officers in question had every reason to beat on Mr. King’s Black body (because he represented a “threat”), that was a clear-as-day sign to Black people that something unknowable besides the obvious—Black hatred—was at work. The law was not on our side. Never has been. Is not to this day. (Please see Paul Manafort’s 2019 jail sentence of 4 years from a judge who said, “He’s otherwise led a good life”—though he sold our country out to Russia. Getting caught with marijuana in many places of America gets you more time than that.)


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XXXVIII, 286 pp., 11 color ill.

Biographical notes

Vernon L. Andrews (Author)

Dr. Vernon L. Andrews obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with an emphasis in race and ethnicity, sport, and social psychology. He has published numerous academic and non-academic essays on African American culture and history. Raised in Oakland, California, he attends Burning Man annually.


Title: Policing Black Athletes
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326 pages