The Cultural Significance of Taking a Knee | Sojourners

The Cultural Significance of Taking a Knee

Never have knees and kneeling carried such cultural significance.

“NO KNEELING!” So tweets our “dominate-the-streets” president in response to white football star Drew Brees voicing support for fellow players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence. This, while demonstrations swell across the country in response to the murder of George Floyd by an officer who drilled his knee into Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes while the man lay face down on the ground, defenseless and dying.

Trump is clearly directing his “no kneeling” edict at the wrong person. It’s entirely fitting that NFL players — and all of us, for that matter — take a knee right now. And in venues way beyond pro football.

Of course, the meaning of kneeling is complex and context-dependent. It can signify surrender and supplication. Now it can mean cruelty and murder. Or in the best sense, in the sense the country needs it now, it can mean humility and respect.

Kneeling has deep meaning for Christians, of course. It’s what one does in prayer. “Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD (Psalm 95:6).”

Kneeling is also the posture of conceding our limits, admitting we are not all-knowing, not all-powerful, not on top of a given situation, and not always in charge. (Take note, fellow white people.)

And kneeling is the posture of humbleness and awe, which a lot of us are rightly feeling given the magnitude of the moment and the crises that have brought country to its knees, so to speak. There is something powerful in seeing people in power — whether through celebrity or election — take a knee. It’s good when they get up, though. Because they, like the rest of us, have actual work to do to confront the systemic injustices that manifested in Floyd’s murder.

As one who has studied and written about political and cultural dynamics in sports, I find it surreal to hear “NO KNEELING” from a president who has courted and received support from conservative white evangelicals. Back when Tim Tebow was making it a habit to kneel in the end zone before games, his head bowed in prayer, kneeling was something that religious conservatives celebrated. The famous quarterback’s pose became a cultural fad, something to admire and emulate; “Tebowing” became a thing.

Jump ahead a few years, change the kneeler from the Focus on the Family-endorsing Tim Tebow to Colin Kaepernick kneeling to protest police brutality, and suddenly it’s sinister, not saintly, to take a knee.

“Get that son of a b---- off the field,” Trump snarled back in the 2017 season, referring to players like Eric Reid who were kneeling during the anthem. (By then, Kaepernick was already “off the field”; no team would hire him despite the fact he had played well as the 49ers’ starting quarterback the season before.) The administration was so intent on signaling its revulsion that it sent the pious vice president, Mike Pence, to an Indianapolis Colts game so that he could get up and leave in a well-photographed huff after several players knelt during the anthem.

When pro football resumes this fall (assuming the coronavirus cooperates), Trump and Pence had better avert their eyes. Because there’s going to be a whole lot of kneeling during the “Star Spangled Banner.”

The changed tune of Drew Brees is a sure sign of the irrepressible momentum of Black Lives Matter, in football as in the wider culture. Last week, as protests were surging across the country, Brees, an avowed Christian, initially spoke like it was still 2017 and he could afford to criticize the mostly black anthem-kneelers. Asked if he was rethinking his position following George Floyd’s murder, Brees maintained that those players disrespect the flag and the military men and women “who risk their lives for this country.”

The blowback was severe — from black teammates and other sports giants such as LeBron James. Brees apologized, admitting his words “lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy” and conceding what black athletes have been pointing out over and over again: Kneeling during the anthem is a protest against racially motivated police violence, not the flag, not the military.

"I stand with the black community in the fight against systemic racial injustice and police brutality and support the creation of real policy change that will make a difference," Brees said. "I condemn the years of oppression that have taken place throughout our black communities and still exists today.”

Trump shot back that Brees "should not have taken back his original stance” against kneeling during the anthem. “We should be standing up straight and tall, ideally with a salute, or a hand on heart,” Trump tweeted. “NO KNEELING!"

YES KNEELING! Despite what the president says, we should all be kneeling. Literally and figuratively. On football fields and wherever else. During, before, and after the national anthem. To show that we remember George Floyd and his too-many-to-count fellow African Americans who have been targets of police and mob violence over the country’s history. To clarify for ourselves and everyone else that we feel the weight of the moment. Overdue change is busting out, but we know there are powerful forces dead-set against it and ready to go to great lengths — ever more frightening lengths, we fear — to hold it back.

The ground is a good place for our knees right now — provided we don't stay on them too long when there is so much work to be done.