USOC Taking a Knee (kind of) in Support of Athletes Right to Peacefully Protest

Cowboys Cardinals Football
Dallas Cowboys players coaches and owner protesting on September 24

After building for over a year, the National Football League in America is being swept up in a wave of peaceful protests, as players, coaches, and in some cases, owners, are finding ways to silently protest what they believe to be an insensitivity to the issues of race, sparked by comments made in September by the President of the United States.

Referring to an athlete who gets on one knee during the playing of the American national anthem, the President said that such an athlete “disrespects our flag,” and is a “a son of a bitch” who should be fired.

When asked on September 25 at a press conference if the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) would support similar protests in at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, USOC CEO, Scott Blackmun, answered in a way that symbolizes the challenge of protesting at the Olympics.

I think the athletes that you see protesting are protesting because they love their country, not because they don’t. We fully support the right of our athletes and everybody else to express themselves. The Olympic Games themselves, there is a prohibition on all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise. And that applies no matter what side of the issue you’re taking, no matter where you’re from. … But we certainly recognize the importance of athletes being able to express themselves.

Scott Blackmun

Blackmun’s words are sympathetic regarding an athlete’s right to express views that are deeply personal and important to them. But he does say that the Olympics prohibits “all forms of demonstrations, political or otherwise.” In other words, we respect your right to protest peacefully. But you need to respect the IOC or a National Olympic committee’s right to kick you out if you do so.

In 1968, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who famously stood with gloved hands raised in fists on the medal podium after their gold and bronze medal victories in the 200 meter finals, were consequently forced to leave the Olympic venue.

In 1972, Americans Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett, protested in their own way by standing nonchalantly on the medal stand while the American anthem was playing. Their perceived disrespect resulted in their suspension from further participation at the Munich Olympics, and subsequently in the US team failing to field a 4×400 relay team, an event they were favored in.

Collett explained in 1992 his actions in 1972 in a way that likely reflects the feelings of many athletes who are linking arms, removing themselves from the field or kneeling during the playing of the American national anthem:

I love America. I just don’t think it’s lived up to its promise. I’m not anti-American at all. To suggest otherwise is to not understand the struggles of blacks in America at the time.

Indianapolis Colts protesting
Indianapolis Colts protesting on September 24