Monday night at Max Levitt’s house in Washington was typical of any time the Redskins played: beer, pineapple pizza, crème de menthe brownies and 11 rabid fans screaming at the TV to will their team to victory.
“Kirk Cousins. This is where he earns his paycheck, right here. Third and medium,” one yelled.
It wasn’t to be. The team lost to the Kansas City Chiefs 29-20. But now, in addition to the results of each four quarters there is a new unknown: Will players take a knee, lock arms or just stay off the field when the national anthem is played?
Levitt and his friends, all graduates of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, said they are frustrated about the national conversation surrounding NFL football players’ refusal to stand during the Star Spangled Banner. Levitt said that when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to sit for the anthem last year, he was protesting police brutality toward African Americans.
But on Sept. 22, President Donald Trump turned what had been a gesture for social justice into an issue of what it means to be patriotic. He said on Twitter and to a raucous rally in Alabama that NFL owners should fire players who follow Kaepernick’s lead.
After Trump’s comments, more than 200 NFL players from across the league showed solidarity with Kaepernick’s cause by kneeling, sitting, linking arms or staying off the field while the anthem played.
The Redskins locked arms on Monday night. At halftime, the fans in Levitt’s house muted the TV in the room with Washington Wizards gear strewn around and turned their attention to politics.
“Trump has made kneeling anti-American,” Levitt said. “Trump makes it seem like if you kneel now you’re not a patriot. That’s not how this started at all. It’s totally changed the narrative.”
Josh Akman agreed that the point of Kaepernick’s civil rights cause has been lost in the two weeks since Trump’s attack on players who boycott the anthem.
“The one thing that strikes me most is the semantics of it,” he said. “People are interpreting [the protests] into how it fits their narrative, where it fits their point. One side is focused on how you’re disrespecting the flag, and the other side is saying it has nothing to do with the flag specifically.”
Asked what he thought at the time of Kaepernick’s protest, Scott Goldfarb said he thought it was smart for Kaepernick to choose the anthem as a vehicle for protest because television networks had only recently begun televising it.
“He probably thought it was an opportunity to convey his ideology, and that’s why it happened to occur while the flag was unfolding, not because he wanted to disrespect it,” Goldfarb said.
But one Redskins fan, who asked not to be identified due to employer restrictions on being quoted on his political views, said that while he appreciated Kaepernick’s decision, the fact that the quarterback didn’t vote in the 2016 election invalidated his moral authority.
“If you’re going to be an activist and have this huge platform where tons of people are paying attention to you, to me [not voting] shows you don’t even really care,” he said. “I think it’s a perfectly reasonable position to say there’s systemic racism in police, but I think [Kaepernick] comes off disingenuous.”
The discussion shifted to whether NFL players should be allowed to take political stands at all. Everyone said yes, they do, but that free speech comes with responsibility.
“If you’re an NFL owner and [Redskins cornerback] Josh Norman comes up to you and says, ‘I want to espouse antifa views, is that OK?” asked Max Shrier, referring to leftist militants whose ideology includes confronting fascists with violence.
“No, that’s crossing a line,” Levitt answered. “But [taking a knee] isn’t antifa.”
Akman said a lesson from the last two weeks is that there shouldn’t be a double standard when it comes to athletes being vocal about their views.
“It’s an interesting hypocritical line, in my opinion, for Trump supporters to be like, ‘Oh, he’s an athlete, he shouldn’t be involved in politics,’” Akman said. “What gave Trump any right to be involved in politics?
“Nobody’s saying to Trump, ‘Oh, stay in business.’”