Three Big Reminders from the NFL Protestors

I recently wrote an article to athletic coaches, attempting to help them navigate what to do when one or more of their players take a knee in protest during the national anthem. This is an issue that’s caught the attention of millions of football fans across the country, and some say the reason for many of them to boycott games. Why? Some are for the kneeling and some are against it.

In the article, I suggested what both coaches and players can learn from each other. The principle illustrated in one of the Habitudes®—“Tappers and Listeners”— explains that both sides of any issue must be certain that their message isn’t misinterpreted. Clarity is king.

Then, I chose to practice what I had preached.

At the prodding of some of our readers, I began digging deeper into this issue. (Thanks Kelli, Steve and Chuck!) It started in August 2016, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench instead of standing for the national anthem at a pre-season game. Like many, when I heard about this, I was hurt. Why would an athlete remain seated and disrespect the American flag and the soldiers who fought for his freedom? This flew in the face of everything I’d been taught.

When I began listening further, however, I began to understand more deeply.

The Story Behind the Story

photo credit: Brook-Ward Kaepernick via photopin (license)

Following Kaepernick’s protest, former NFL player and former Green Beret Nate Boyer wrote an open letter to Kaepernick, published in the Army Times. In the letter, Boyer respectfully relayed how Colin’s sitting instead of standing made him feel. No doubt, Nate had credibility from his experience in the military and the NFL. What many didn’t know was that Colin Kaepernick responded to Boyer’s open letter this way:

“I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for people, they fight for liberty and justice for everyone. But that’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice and liberty for everybody.”

Whether or not you agree with Colin, you can see he was not intending to disrespect the flag or the military. He was simply communicating that he felt we weren’t living up to the words of our national anthem and the purpose of our military.

After those two open letters, Nate Boyer and Colin Kaepernick met to talk over this issue that’s caused millions of people to misunderstand each other. Boyer said later:

“We were able to meet together for a couple of hours. It was really cool to have him just listen, too, and be very open-minded and (say), ‘Look, I don’t want to hurt you, I don’t want to hurt your brothers and sisters.’ After talking for a while and both men feeling heard, they came to a conclusion. Boyer continued: “I think maybe taking a knee would be a little more respectful. It’s still a demonstration. You’re still saying something but people take a knee to pray. So for me, it was common ground, at least to start from.”

Not satisfied?

Boyer explained that taking a knee is actually a common act of humility. It’s what military soldiers do at the grave of a fallen comrade. It’s like flying the flag at half-mast. It’s not so much a disregard for the flag as much as an addendum to the respect a person portrays when they stand. The message? Someone has fallen; someone has died and it’s important to show respect for them as well.

Three Big Reminders for Leaders

Learning this backstory sure helped me see both sides more clearly. And they are actually closer to each other than we might expect. But it required both honest conversation and genuine listening to make it happen. Let me offer three reminders for leaders who supervise the next generation.

1. You’ll likely learn something you didn’t know.

When leaders actually stop talking and listen to their teams (especially young team members), they almost always learn something they didn’t know. There is always a story behind the story. I like to say: context explains conduct. Get the backstory.

2. You’ll grow in your empathy for them.

When leaders stop to listen, they actually deepen their empathy for team members. Whether we know it or not, we can usually improve our leadership by improving our empathy levels. As author Brene Brown says: “It’s hard to hate people up close.”

3. You’ll win them over at the heart level.

Just listening to those you lead earns your right to be heard. Lay aside your title and your pride and digest what’s really being said and felt by them. Ask questions. See it from their side. Listen. When we do, we authentically win the right to lead them.

Larry King once said, “I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything. So, if I am going to learn I must do it by listening.”

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Three Big Reminders from the NFL Protestors