Athletes protest racial inequality: Exploring views

In this activity, students discuss widespread protests by NFL and other athletes against racial injustice, consider tweets for and against these protests, and discuss how one group of high school athletes decided to act.   


A Backgrounder for the Teacher

This lesson has students consider the widespread protests by athletes against racial injustice. The following background information about this ongoing controversy may be helpful.

NBA and WNBA players have protested police brutality and injustice since 2014, wearing shirts during warm–up games with texts like "I can’t breathe"—the last words of the unarmed Eric Garner before he was choked to death by police in Staten Island, NY, in July 2014.  Athletes have expressed their concern to the media as well. Football players have made the "hands up don’t shoot" gesture before their games – a reference to Mike Brown, the young man who was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. Some have worn shirts or shoes with hand–written messages protesting injustice. 

During the summer of 2016, entire women’s basketball teams and their owners came out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. On July 9, Minnesota Lynx players showed up in warm–up shirts printed with "Black Lives Matter," "Change Starts with Us," "Justice and Accountability," an image of the Dallas police shield, and the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the most recent Black victims of fatal police shootings at that time. Some WNBA teams have worn solid black warm–up shirts to protest shootings by and against police officers. WNBA teams have been fined for their protests, as have the individual players. WNBA President Lisa Border explained, "We are proud of WNBA players’ engagement and passionate advocacy for non–violent solutions to difficult social issues but expect them to comply with the league’s uniform guidelines." 

On August 26, 2016, Colin Kaepernick, then quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, sat down during the singing of the national anthem before the start of a football game.  Many people were upset by this and thought it was unpatriotic and disrespectful to the people of the military who fought and died for our country.  

Kaepernick explained that he was protesting the treatment of people of color by the police and the government. "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told reporters.  Soon after starting his protest, Kaepernick was joined by teammate Eric Reid. They discussed ways of using their platform as professional athletes in the NFL to speak for those who are voiceless. They talked things through with Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former NFL player and came to the conclusion that they should kneel instead of sit during the anthem as a peaceful protest. They choose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture.  Reid shared with the New York Times that he remembers thinking their posture was like a flag flown at half mast to mark a tragedy.

In the end Kaepernick paid a high price for taking a "stand" for what he believed in. He wasn’t drafted by any of the NFL teams during the 2017 season, and many people believe it was because of his controversial protest. Ultimately football is a business and many of the (mostly white) fans are upset by the protest.  They feel it is disrespectful and unpatriotic. 

Even without Kaepernick in the NFL, the protests continued and grew, especially after President Trump’s controversial tweets early in the 2017 season, in which he scolded athletes for taking a knee and demanded respect for "our country, flag and national anthem." "They’re ruining the game," Trump said. "That’s a total disrespect of our heritage. That’s a total disrespect of everything that we stand for." Trump suggested that NFL owners fire players who kneel during the anthem and that fans consider walking out "when somebody disrespects our flag." The president and several athletes went back and forth on Twitter, calling each other names, even adding obscenities at times.

The protests by Colin Kaepernick and other professional athletes against racial injustice and police shootings of unarmed black men have gotten the attention of many young people. 

Some students have mounted protests of their own by taking a knee or otherwise protesting during the national anthem or pledge of allegiance. Although some school administrators have tried to stop these student protests, the law is clear: Students’ right to free speech cannot be curtailed unless it disrupts the educational process. (For more, see this 1½ minute Education Week video.) 

The protests are also, of course, a teachable moment. As JoAnn Bartoletti, executive director of National Association of Secondary School Principals, writes: "A student’s taking a knee can trigger a crucial conversation about the nature of protest, about what taking a knee represents, and even about why it might offend some observers. But students must first know that school is a safe place where they can learn to amplify their voices courageously and constructively. They need to be empowered to have those conversations now so those skills are well practiced when they participate in a democracy."



Read the following quote from September 25, 2017, out loud:

I realize that men and women of the military go out and sacrifice their lives and put their selves in harm's way for my freedom of speech and my freedoms in this country, and my freedom to take a seat or take a knee, so I have the utmost respect for them, and I think what I did was taken out of context and spun a different way.

Ask students if they know who might have said this and what it is in reference to. Elicit and explain that the quote is by Colin Kaepernick, the Super Bowl quarterback who, while playing for the San Francisco 49ers last year, joined a protest movement against racial inequality and police brutality that had been spreading across professional sports since 2014. 

The image of Kaepernick taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem has been widely published, tweeted, and interpreted in many different ways. It has triggered a wide variety of responses. Some people agree with him. Others are angry at him (and other athletes) for expressing themselves on social justice issues in this way. 

Explain that in today’s lesson plan we’ll explore some of the reasons why people are protesting, as well as people’s reactions to those protests.  We’ll watch a video of a group of teenage athletes discussing these issues in their locker room.


Tweets in Response to NFL Protests

Invite students to look at the tweets in this handout. In pairs, ask students to discuss, based on these tweets, what they think the response has been to protests by Kaepernick and other athletes. 

Note:  We’ve left out tweets that use obscene and disparaging language. 

Next, facilitate a large group discussion using some or all of the following questions:

  • What are the different perspectives on the protests reflected in these tweets?
  • What other perspectives on the issue are you aware of?
  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the protests in the NFL and beyond?
  • Do you know how Kaepernick came up with the idea of taking a knee during the national anthem and what it represents for him?   (If needed, use the backgrounder at the start of this lesson to add to what students know about Kaepernick’s protest.)
  • Does learning the rationale behind Kaepernick’s (and Eric Reid’s) protest change in any way your thoughts and feelings about what’s been happening in the NFL?


Video: How one high school team took on the issue

Play the following clip from Vice News, either in two separate segments or all the way through:

Setting the stage, part 1 (in the video, 0:00–2:15 min)

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the video?
  • What did the students at Berkeley High say about their school (in what is considered to be one of the most liberal cities in the country)? 
  • What did the students say about racism at their school?
  • What was a response from the student body to those acts of racism so far?


Football team meeting and protest, part 2 (in the video, 2:15–7:01)

  • What were some of the personal stories the football players shared in the meeting?
  • What did the students say the protest would be about?
  • What did some of the students suggest the team could do to join the national protest that Colin Kaepernick was involved in?
  • Why did students say it was important for the team to do this together?
  • How did the coach feel about the protest at the start, and then after the team meeting?
  • How does the coach feel about blocking out the outside world, and proceeding as if BLM and police shootings weren’t happening?
  • Who stepped up as leaders in this piece?  How?
  • Who stepped up to support them in their efforts?  How?



Talk about a time in your life when you took a leadership role, or a time in your life when you were inspired by someone else and supported them in their efforts. What was that like?  What were you able to get done?  Is there anything you’d be interested in doing as a result of today’s lesson?