Months of arguments over Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem has come to a head this week as President Trump denounced their actions at a rally and on Twitter. I have tried my best to avoid this topic because I don’t think I have a very firm grip on the state of race relations in America and how it pertains to sports. However I’ve come to a realization about this situation: The argument over athletes kneeling during the National Anthem is a poor manifestation of the real issue that we aren’t talking about: Race relations. When we allow ourselves to hide behind mere arguments of patriotism and politicized sports, we are refusing to treat the root of the problem.

When we only choose to argue over whether or not Colin Kaepernick should be punished for kneeling during the National Anthem, we are missing the entire point of why athletes are protesting in the first place. Athletes are kneeling during the National Anthem because they want to call attention to the mistreatment of African-Americans in this nation. When athletes kneel during the National Anthem, they are doing it not because they hate America, police officers, or white people in general. They are doing it to call attention to an issue that is important to them. Many of these young men grew up witnessing racial discrimination against them and their families, and they see the rash of police violence as an example of institutionalized racism in this nation.

Of course, I understand the argument many people have about athletes who kneel during the National Anthem, many people understandably see it as disrespecting the American flag, and disrespecting the men and women who gave their lives in service to this country. When athletes kneel during the National Anthem, it is not to disrespect the sacrifice made by the men and women of this country. This is a peaceful, nonviolent, minimally-disruptive protest for a huge social issue. They are protesting in this way because it is sure to get a reaction, you don’t protest in a way that can be simply ignored. You can disagree with them, but respect the issue they are fighting for.

I have a lot of respect for the athletes who are choosing to publicly protest for this issue that is paramount in their lives. They are putting their careers and reputations on the line in order to work towards justice, and that takes a lot of guts.

I’m not going to argue whether they are right or wrong about the issue they are calling to attention, because I have not lived their lives, seen what they have seen, and shared the same experiences as them. I am incredibly lucky to not be discriminated against ever in my life, I don’t know what it feels like to be pulled over by police officers for no reason. I don’t know what it’s like to be called racial slurs. I don’t know what it’s like to know that my ancestors were enslaved and discriminated against in this free country. I don’t know what it is like to worry that a routine traffic stop could cost me my livelihood or life. However, that does not disqualify my opinion in these hugely important conversations, nor does it disqualify anyone’s. In this case I just feel like I don’t know enough to really contribute to the debate.

This is a tough conversation that we as a nation need to have. We have to all be intellectually honest with each other and ourselves as we attempt to heal these wounds that are older than our country. Our nation’s proud history is marred by racism and discrimination, and echoes of those shameful parts of our history haunt our society to this day. We have to work to achieve true justice in this country.

Now that President Trump has specifically called out athletes who kneel as “sons of bitches” and has called for the firing of them, I am certain that the number of athletes who kneel is going to increase dramatically (From Noon on Sunday, when I’m publishing this, it looks like that’s exactly what is happening). It’s almost like he knows that this issue divides us, and wants to make it worse. We can’t let that happen.

We cannot allow ourselves to tear our country to pieces over a football game while we ignore the real issue. This is essentially a proxy war in the larger debate over race relations, one that is distracting us from seriously dealing with the root issue. We need to have an honest conversation about race in America, we can’t allow ourselves to hide behind arguments of patriotism and politicized sports. The problem is bigger than football.

We don’t need bickering, we need discussion. We need to listen to each other, engage in constructive dialogue, see things how others do, and work together towards solutions. In order to reach a solution, we first need to seriously face the real problem.

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