US American athletes could learn from past nonviolent action: be clear and disruptive!


October 16, 2017

In past weeks, professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest and raise awareness on the issue of racial injustice in the United States have caught the media’s attention. CANVAS’ Weekly Report and Daily News reported on the protests and Donald Trump’s and Vice President Mike Pence’s reaction at a San Francisco 49ers game earlier this month. While protests had caused solidarity in the NFL for a while, the league’s commissioner Roger Goodell called on the players last week to stand up for the national anthem possibly fearing financial consequences, wrote Les Carpenter on the Sportsblog for the Guardian. But even after this statement, some players again kneeled during the anthem at a game on Sunday.

In an opinion article for Bloomberg last Thursday, Stephen L. Carter, columnist and professor of law at Yale University, pointed out that even though he is a supporter of the athletes’ cause, the players are currently not causing any disruption and are thus not advancing their struggle. He refers to lessons learned by Martin Luther King during the Albany Movement in 1961-1962, when activists failed to incite the expected harsh responses by the police, not being able to make their point.

Carter writes: “Protest at its best should have a clear, articulable purpose. It should also be designed to create a disruptive tension that can be resolved only by bringing the movement nearer to its goal.” The CANVAS Core Curriculum as well points out that “[t]he world rarely changes because of symbolic actions” (p. 69), that protests should communicate a clear message and that one of the main desired outcomes of nonviolent action, besides mobilization and defection, is the interruption of the ‘business as usual’ (pp. 92-93).

According to Carter, there have certainly been reactions by fans and statements as that by Roger Goodell. But it remains to be seen whether the protests will have any serious consequences, and whether the US American athletes and their supporters can further promote the cause, triggering a genuine national debate on the issue.

Read more about what Stephen L. Carter writes on the NFL protesters here.

Photo Left: Bettmann Archive /

Photo Right: Patrick Smith /