Perhaps it’s time for NFL players to escalate their protests of police brutality

Most protest movements encounter resistance. Effective protest movements adapt.

Malcolm Jenkins #27 of the Philadelphia Eagles raises his fist during the national anthem as Chris Long #56 puts his arm around him prior to the preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo Credit: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Malcolm Jenkins #27 of the Philadelphia Eagles raises his fist during the national anthem as Chris Long #56 puts his arm around him prior to the preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. (Photo Credit: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

With pre-season games for the National Football League now underway, we’re picking up where we left off with one of last year’s big sports-adjacent storylines: The continuing efforts of NFL athletes to protest the extra-judicial killings of black people and other sundry instances of police brutality.

As CNN reported, there were several instances of sideline protests before Thursday night’s exhibition games kicked off, in which players either knelt or raised their fists during the playing of the national anthem, or remained in the locker room.

What happened next will come as no surprise. President Donald Trump, who has made off-and-on use of the players’ protests to change the trajectory of the media narrative, tweeted his disapproval and renewed the pressure he’s been placing on the NFL’s owners — the only billionaires in America who are being held hostage by politicians instead of the reverse — to take a stronger hand in reining in the players by suspending them without pay for speaking out.

And the media has returned to their same bad habits, characterizing the players’ demonstrations as if they were somehow mad at music. “NFL Players Renew Anthem Protests As Pre-Season Starts,” reads one headline from the terminally editor-challenged NPR, which like many other news outlets has framed the issue as one in which the players are somehow disputing the legitimacy of “The Star Spangled Banner,” or patriotism in general, instead of the actual issue at hand.


“I just think it’s important to keep this conversation going, that we don’t let it get stagnant,” said Philadelphia Eagles captain Malcolm Jenkins after his team’s preseason game with the Steelers. Jenkins’ motivation is heartfelt, but between Trump’s constant barrage of bombast and the media’s sclerotic view of the story, it seems as though the players could see their effort get caught in a static pattern over the course of their new season — or worse, the owners might start acting on Trump’s urging.

But in his own blundering way, the president may have unwittingly given the protestors the best possible advice: “Find another way to protest,” the president commanded on Twitter. Malcolm Jenkins and his compatriots should call that bluff by changing things up — perhaps even escalating their in-game demonstrations. Effective protest movements adapt, and this might be a ripe time for the players to give the idea some thought.

In an interview with ThinkProgress back in March, Sarah Jaffe — the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans In Revolt — explained that the problem with any one particular protest tactic is that you eventually come to a point where it’s no longer as effective as it once was, because the power base being targeted by that protest tactic eventually adapts to resist it. “I think one of the things you need to do to succeed is try new things,” said Jaffe.

Jaffe, who spent many months shadowing the Occupy Wall Street protests, described how one of their most popular tactics — the “mic-check” — went from being a chaos-causing pain to something that was rather handily defeated.

My best example of this is early on, during Occupy, people would use the mic-check as a sort of disruption. I remember I was watching a livestream of people who had gone to a panel on education policy in New York, and it was a bunch of teachers, and Occupiers, and students who were using the mic-check to completely shut down this meeting because nobody knew what to do about it. A year and a half, two years later, I went with a group of protesters to the Morgan Stanley shareholders’ meeting, and they were not baffled by the mic-check at all, they just calmly waited for it to be done. And that’s what happens when you’re thinking, “We just have to keep doing this one tactic, and we’ll succeed.” That’s not necessarily true.

There’s research that backs this up. As blogger Mike Konczal wrote back in December of 2011, Occupy’s titular tactic — the occupation of public space — had started to “collapse,” forcing the movement to come up with new ways of protesting. But that’s not a bad thing, Konczal noted, “This is how it is supposed to go.” Konczal provided this chart from sociologist Doug McAdam, which tracked the “evolution of different tactics during the civil rights movement [between] 1955-1962, charted by frequency of occurrences.”


As you can see, what made the civil rights movement so effective was the way it changed over time, moving in an innovative way between several means of protest, never staying static.

As Konczal summarizes:

It’s a game between power and resistance. A strategy is innovated, to which institutionalized power reacts to counter. Power uses a variety of counter-innovations from co-option, discouragement to outright repression, which reduces the efficiency of that strategy. Because the tactic has used up its initial usefulness and because power has become adapt at countering it, new tactics have to be innovated.


Interesting note: future innovations raise the usage of all tactical forms – so if history is any guide, future innovations from Occupy can redouble efforts at previous ones, say public occupations.

There is, in all likelihood, a lot of room for the NFL players and their nascent protest culture to evolve in similar fashion. One of the most ironic things, in fact, about the so-called “anthem protests,” is that they actually lack a lot of visibility, in and of themselves. The NFL’s television audience rarely gets to watch the playing of the national anthem, so they’re not privy to the goings-on along the sideline in all but the most high-profile football games. Even those taking in the live experiences have to make something of a concerted effort to notice the protesting players. It’s arguable that widespread knowledge of these protests has only come about because of those who have publicly complained about them.

But the players actually have many occasions where they are extremely visible during football games — for instance, whenever they score and celebrate a touchdown. Players so inclined can make use of these frozen moments to do the same thing they’re doing in relative sub-rosa fashion during the playing of the anthem. Something as simple as an agreed-upon gesture — the Black Power Salute comes immediately to mind, but NFL players are nothing if not creative — consistently made during those moments where all the eyes of the viewing audience are engaged, could add a dose of new energy and escalate all of the “necessary trouble.”


The marriage of scoring celebration and political protest would create the blend of disruption and fun that Jaffe gave the Parkland students high marks for keeping alive in their own protest movement:

Even though this is a really depressing subject one of the things about these movements is that people tend to find ways to take pleasure in them. You look at the [Parkland kids] and they’re pausing to go cry because they’re really traumatized, but they’re also able to take pleasure in strength in each other, and go forward in a way that all movements have to do, or else they’ll die out. If it’s just constant, hard-grinding, miserable work all the time, then it’s going to die.

Changing things up would also thwart, at least for a time, whatever power is massing against the sideline protests — while amping up the provocation. And the actual issue the players have come to protest deserves some additional provocation.

Naturally, any change in tactics would have its own limited period of effectiveness, and the risks to players’ pay and livelihood might remain. Moreover, it likely wouldn’t stem the tide of animosity that has streamed the players’ way since all the kneeling began. Nevertheless, such tactical innovations have a proven track record for keeping protest movements alive and effective. And hey, it’s what the president says he wants, so why not take his very good advice?