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The Political History Behind the NFL’s #TakeAKnee Protests

Baltimore Ravens players kneel down during the playing of the U.S. national anthem before an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium in London, Sunday Sept. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

On Sunday, as more than 100 NFL players took a knee, sat, locked arms, or stayed in the locker room during the national anthem, Questlove Gomez sent out a powerful tweet urging Americans to look to the historical antecedents to Sunday’s protests before joining in on them. 

“look #TakeTheKnee = powerful,” Gomez tweeted. “BUT don't bandwagon something u don't get: point is to UNDERSTAN [sic] why @Kaepernick7 is protesting. start there.”

Gomez is right. 

The roots of the NFL’s “Take a Knee” go beyond Sunday’s spate of NFL games, and even beyond quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests that began in 2016. They go beyond sports to address one of the fundamental issues of our time, and one that Global Citizen campaigns on: entrenched racial inequality, within and among countries.  

The Global Goals for Sustainable Development enshrine reduced inequalities “within and among countries” as one of 17 requisites for ending extreme poverty by 2030. They call for policies that “promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.” 

These policies, ultimately, are what Kaepernick, Stevie Wonder, Miley Cyrus, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Pharrell Williams, J. Cole, Shonda Rhimes, and Martin Luther King, Jr. before them, are calling for by taking a knee and lifting their voices up. 

Speaking in 2016, Kaepernick outlined his reason for kneeling or taking a seat during the national anthem in no uncertain terms. 

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said in August of 2016. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

According to the Mapping Police Violence project, black people are three times more likely than white people to be the victims of police brutality. And 99% of police officers involved in police brutality cases are not convicted. 

Read More: How the NBA Is Quietly Becoming the Most Progressive Pro-Sports League in America

The act of taking a knee to protest police violence and systemic inequality goes back to the Civil Rights Movement. 

On Sunday, King's youngest daughter, Bernice, tweeted out a picture of the Civil Rights leader and others taking a knee before being arrested for advocating for voter registration rights at the Dallas County courthouse in Selma, Ala in 1965. 

Former US Attorney General Eric Holder posted a similar picture of King from that same protest, saying: “Those who dared protest have helped bring about positive change.” 

Despite King’s protests, and the many that have followed, economic prospects for people of color in the United States have stagnated since 1983, and are expected to fall between now and 2024, Forbes reports

According to Fortune, the United States is the most unequal nation in the world

Reporter Mehreen Kasana, writing for Bustle, drew a direct line between Kaepernick’s protest and the entrenched inequality that continues to exist in the United States and around the world. 

Read More: Global Citizens at GC Fest Have a Lot to Say About America’s Role in the World

“Kaepernick's protest is against a form of violent racial inequality that predates the current president and is firmly embedded in the social fabric of this country in the form of discrimination against African Americans in education, professional places, and more,” Kasana wrote. 

The Global Goals offer a vision for how to change this, urging governments to “ensure equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome, including by eliminating discriminatory laws, policies and practices and promoting appropriate legislation, policies and action in this regard.” 

In their own way, the NFL players who took a knee on Sunday made this same call to action.