taking the words of Jesus seriously

An interview with Jesus-follower Leroy Barber about boycotting the NFL and kneeling for justice.

Leroy, what is the #NFLkneeldown?

NFL Kneeldown has been a series of peaceful actions, where supporters gather outside of football stadiums to kneel during the national anthem.

NFL Kneeldown was my attempt, as a football fan, to voice my solidarity with the message that Colin Kaepernick was communicating: the lives of black people and people of color are not honored fully in this country. This has been evidenced most recently by police shootings, mass incarceration, underemployment, immigrant deportations, and a pipeline—that was rejected by white communities, because of its environmental dangers—that was allowed to be built on native lands.

Can you share more about what precipitated your #NFLkneeldown action?

Last year, Kaepernick took a stand for black lives when he knelt during the national anthem being played at NFL games. His purpose was to heighten awareness that many black Americans are not getting the full benefits that the flag of the United States represents. Others joined him, bringing more attention to the message. There was no NFL rule requiring players to stand for the national anthem and Kaepernick, who was peacefully protesting, broke no rules.

But his action also elicited the voices of those who were adamantly opposed to the protest Colin began. He was labeled as “anti-American,” “disruptive,” and “dishonoring to Veterans.” Unfortunately, these narratives are skirting the real issue of black lives in this country.

When the season ended Colin had the choice to exercise an option on his contract or opt out. He chose to opt out to test the free agent market. He was not signed to a team for the 2017 season. Those who disagree with Colin claim that he’s responsible for the fact that he is not playing this year, although his General Manager is on record saying he would have been cut anyway. Those of us who support Colin believe that he’s been blackballed from the league.

Some folks say it’s not political. That his career is over for other reasons. What do you think?

When Colin didn’t get signed, some fans, like me, began to voice our displeasure. The excuses we heard included: “He’s not good enough to be signed,” “He is a distraction,” and “He is a rule breaker.” All of these excluded the possibility that not being signed could have been related to race or Colin’s protest.

But these arguments began to lose steam as we watched players signed who hadn’t played for years, as well as players who weren’t as talented as Kaepernick, such as Ryan Fitzpatrick. We began to hear football analysts state unequivocally that Colin deserved to be signed. We began to see players like Miami’s Jay Cutler, with a history of not being a team player and being a distraction in the locker room, being signed.

Who is #NFLkneeldown for?

NFL Kneeldown has been an appeal to deeply committed football fans, asking them to consider what the league we support is doing to a player for exercising his right to protest peacefully. If we didn’t get football fans, we knew it wouldn’t work. We needed people, like myself, who follow the signings from high school, watch the draft, await the schedule, attend many games a year, pay for tickets, and spend money on merchandise all year long.

That’s who is kneeling, and that’s what’s making the difference.

We need everyone involved, but football fans are key. We also knew we needed to appeal to women who now make up half the NFL fans. Any campaign that only appeals to men would be shortsighted.

How and when did you launch #NFLkneeldown?

I told my story, and it connected. Over 3 million people have seen it, 50,000 folks have shared it, and over 25,000 people have engaged with comments. The response tells me we’ve hit a nerve with America.

For diehard football fans, football doesn’t begin when the season starts. So we launched at the beginning of July. To date we’ve done four official #NFLkneeldown actions: One in Canton, OH for the Hall of Fame game, one in Dallas, one in Seattle, and, most recently, one in Detroit. Each one has looked different. We’ve been booed, cursed, and moved along by the police.

We’re not alone. There have been other actions in New York City, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Tampa, as well as other boycott campaigns that we celebrate.

And who’s coming out for these actions?

Folks from all walks of life have come: families, pastors, old, young and everyone in between. It has truly been a collective effort.

What critiques have people lodged, and what do you say to those?

Some of the greatest criticism has come from those who say we are dishonoring veterans and the United States. This is false.

I’m upset by how many Americans disregard our right to freedom of speech that this protests represents. Our nation began with a protest: throwing tea into a harbor! What makes our nation distinct is that we can disagree with power without the fear of facing penalty or death.

The problem is that our vision is skewed when it comes to people of color exercising these rights. This has been a problem for us, historically, and it draws us back to why we’re kneeling in the first place: to show that all people are not treated equally.

You’ve been devoted to the NFL for a lifetime! What has this “fast” from football done for you?

For decades, millions of children have wanted, one day, to be a part of the NFL in some way. It captures our imaginations and links our dreams to its bigger-than-life storyline. I admit, I’ve bought hook, line, and sinker. Today, though, the league that poor kids dream of, as a way out, has begun to exploit them in ways we must question.

This year, as I’ve stepped back, I’ve begun to question what they’ve sold me and so many others. The NFL is proving to be something different than what my dreams had led me to believe. It is foremost a business where wealthy white men play and live out their dreams. It’s become a place that the government has now used to push its message of nationalism, demanding we all get in line. The clear message is that if you don’t get in line and behave yourself, your patriotism is questioned. In my opinion, this is diabolical.

I’ve also seen how questions about the league’s understanding of, and knowledge of, brain injuries have gone unanswered and been swept under the rug.

Countless women who have been abused at the hands of players have been ignored.

Stepping back has given me space to ask a lot of questions. This week, ESPN has suspended a black female journalist for offering her personal opinion on Twitter. This isn’t unrelated to the 15.1 billion-dollar contract ESPN has with the NFL. POTUS and the Vice President are calling for and staging walkouts.

I’ve seen it all so much differently as I’ve boycotted.

What has been most encouraging to you in this action?

The solidarity with all kinds of people from all walks of life. The picture I got from a 97 year-old white veteran kneeling was profound. Or take the story of the woman, a sports agent, whose dad is dying. NFL football is a way she and her father connected throughout her entire life. Because of what’s happening with black lives, and although this could be the last season she can watch with her dad, she is boycotting.

What has been the most discouraging part of this for you?

I am getting my share of hate mail and threats. I am saddened to see that I’m hated because I want to stand up for equity, support a man who lost his job because of this, and protest peacefully. I am trying to figure out how—according to one critic—that makes me a “nigger worth hanging.” I’ve been reminded how racism and supremacy are so deeply imbedded in our nation’s consciousness because when I resist, when I go against the flow, I am identified as “a nigger.” That’s the term black folks got when we arrived. And when we stand up, those old implications are evoked again.

There’s now been a call to boycott games in response to players protesting during the national anthem—and even a walkout, during a recent Colts game, by Vice President Pence. Does this change anything?

We are winning. No one thought a football player kneeling would do all of this, but it has.

So what’s next for this movement?

The call will be for us to use the time we spend with friends and family to have better conversations. The hours we once spent together around NFL games—in homes, bars, and at stadium tailgates—can be used differently.

I’m encouraging people to have deeper conversations with the people they’re with. And we hope to debut #kneeldownconversations very soon.

What would you recognize as a “win,” as a result of this action? 

We want to see more and more conversations emerge about the condition of communities of color. We want these conversations to impact public policy that affects these communities. And, of course, we want to see Kaepernick signed.

About The Author

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Margot Starbuck—author, collaborator and speaker—earned an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Bachelor’s from Westmont College. She’s convinced that because God, in Jesus Christ, is with us and for us, we’ve been made to be with and for others. So she’s passionate about equipping folks to love our (sometimes unlikely) neighbors and is the author of seven books and collaborator on others. She enjoys speaking to audiences around the country that include: Messiah College, MOPs International, Young Life Women’s Weekend, Urban Promise Ministry Summit and Wheaton College Center for the Application of Christian Ethics. Margot lives downtown Durham, North Carolina, with her three teens.

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