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What it meant for AFL players to ‘take a knee’ this weekend

By Michael Viljoen - posted Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Taking a risk

Protests are, by definition, risky. The aim of a protest is to draw attention to injustice. You’re wanting to challenge the status-quo, to upset the apple-cart. You’re in someone’s face, defiant of whatever society may deem inappropriate behaviour, and prepared to accept the consequences. The anti-racism protesters from the previous weekend were willing to take some risks. Defying government permission to even be on Melbourne’s streets, they risked getting fined, getting sick, and being blamed for spreading the COVID19 virus through the community.

Yet what did AFL players risk in their protest against systemic racism, by placing one knee on the ground before playing their games of footy this weekend? I would suggest, precisely nothing. Their actions were already given the official tick of approval from the AFL. Their lowering of one knee looked like a gentle, unified hamstring stretch at the end of their warm ups. They were even careful to keep 1.5 metres apart from each other while doing it, so as to comply with health regulations. No one was putting their careers on the line. It was all about as risky as dancing with your sister. The greatest risk was if anyone refused to comply with the statement, and not bow down along with the peer pressure.


By contrast, Adam Goodes raised his voice, just a few times, to protest injustice. Look at the risks he took, and how much it cost him, deeply and personally. It cost the back end of his career. He was effectively driven out of the sport. The two Brownlow and two Premiership medals hanging around his neck didn’t count for anything. He lost all status, along with his love for the game. Going forward, the number of years it will take for Goodes to recover his standing, and regain the honour and recognition that he deserves for his stand-out career will be a measure for how far we are, as a society or even as a sporting community, from achieving real racial harmony.

What really is ‘taking a knee’?

The first person to ‘take a knee’ in the sporting world was San Francisco 49er quarterback, Colin Kaepernick. In 2016, he refused to stand up during the national anthem, as a protest to highlight racial injustice and the blight of police brutality. Understanding that US culture is very different to Australian culture, where the national anthem is played before every single game, his continual protest of kneeling during the anthem was said to be an insult to the 50 stars and 13 stripes on the US flag. He was reminded of how many US soldiers had died to protect the honour of that flag. He was accused of insulting the police, who we know by-and-large are good people, who risk their lives daily to protect those in their community. Yet he continued his defy the flag, week after week. In retribution, fans in large numbers were refusing to watch the games on TV unless Kaepernick and others were brought into line. And so, just like Adam Goodes, Kaepernick was disposed of by the back door, his career prematurely ended.

Kaepernick knew the risk involved in his protest, and he paid for it dearly. If the AFL players on the weekend were prepared to do something as severe as refuse to stand for the national anthem, and dared to defy footy fans, and put the finances of the League and likewise their own careers at risk, only then might their actions be worthy of the phrase ‘taking a knee’.

Police brutality

Were Kaepernick’s protests justified in 2016? The statistics on black deaths at the hands of police are continually punted from end to end. The numbers are out of proportion with the percentages of black people in the population, some say, but blacks figure more highly in violent crime statistics, attracting more attention from police, is the response. Whatever the numbers, the feelings of discrimination are haunting, if not only for the memory of individual cases. Take the example from 2014 of Tamir Rice, the boy who was shot and killed by police arriving in a patrol car, while holding an imitation handgun in a park. The emergency 911 caller explained that they suspected he was only a boy playing with a toy gun, but that information was not passed on to the patrol car by the 911 dispatcher. The 12 year-old was big for his age, and the gun looked real. Details generally become clouded and controverted, an excuse for police is usually found, and juries are reluctant to convict.  


While Kaepernick and the other players’ protests could have been ignored in the past, the brutal death of George Floyd under the knee of law enforcement was incontrovertible. No responsible policeman ever rests his knee on someone’s neck in such circumstances, even momentarily. The images were impossible to ignore. On Thursday, 4 June, a collection of the National Football League’s star players, including Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, released their own video demanding acknowledgement on the part of the NFL that their protests now be taken seriously.

The video asks the League bosses, what would it take for you to listen? Must one of us be murdered by police brutality? The players ask, what if I were George Floyd? These megastars of the sport then self-identify with victims: I am George Floyd; I am Tamir Rice; I am Treyvon Martin; I am Michael Brown Jnr; and numerous others. These NFL players were taking a risk. For they make a specific request of the NFL, and what will the young stars of the game do if the NFL doesn’t comply? Will the players themselves be declared off-side? The players insisted that the NFL make the following statement.

‘We, the National Football League, condemn racism, and the systematic oppression of black people.

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About the Author

Michael Viljoen works as a linguist/translator with Wycliffe Australia, an organisation committed to minority peoples and languages around the world in the fields of literacy, translation and literature production.

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