Then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)
Giannina Ong was a 2017-18 Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
It may not seem initially obvious what ethics has to do with the discussion of kneeling for the national anthem. Here frameworks for ethical decision making may serve to create clarity amidst the chaos of this national debate. There are three frameworks of moral reasoning that I use—the utilitarian, common good, and rights approaches—to categorize Santa Clara University student-athletes’ response to the question: If you were to take a knee, whether you personally think the action is right or not, what do you think would be the outcomes of that action here at Santa Clara University?
Athletes kneeling for the national anthem have become a symbol of resistance to some and a symbol of disrespect to others. On one hand, Colin Kaepernick began the protest in order to create acknowledgement of the social injustices people of color face, in particular police brutality committed against black Americans. On the other, those opposed to the protest say that kneeling during the national anthem disrespects the American flag and what it stands for. (Yet another contingent argues that matters of politics don’t belong on the field.) Both sides stand firm that the other side misunderstands the situation.
While we have seen the debate play out on a national landscape, I was interested to see if there were differences in the argument when it occurred in a smaller environment: that of Santa Clara University. I wanted to know if our campus was simply a microcosm of the American flag versus freedom to protest debate, or if the values of the University came into play, and if there were financial inhibitions unique to the collegiate athlete to consider. While I did not get a straightforward response to this multifaceted issue, the answers can be categorized in terms of one of the three ethical decision-making approaches noted above and laid out in the Framework for Ethical Decision Making of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
- The Utilitarian Approach: Which option will produce the most good and do the least harm?
- The Common Good Approach: Which option best serves the community as a whole, not just some members?
- The Rights Approach: Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake?
The Utilitarian Approach
One group of student-athletes took a utilitarian approach, looking to create the greatest good. In fact, student-athletes responded that kneeling would produce more harm than good. For example, one student-athlete cited the financial burden that would be incurred if they lost their scholarship: “I did say to myself and my parents, I was like, ‘Are you gonna take a knee?’ I said, ‘Do you have sixty-eight thousand dollars a year to give me?’ One of my friends said, ‘Are you gonna take a knee?’ I said, ‘Do you have sixty-eight thousand dollars a year?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Okay, then no. I'm not gonna take a knee.’ I could find an alternative way for me to voice my concerns.” Certain students at Santa Clara have financial obligations that an athletics scholarship fulfills; losing that funding for their education in their eyes would create more harm than good.
Just like their professional counterparts, student-athletes who have joined the protest face the same criticism and judgment that occurs on the national stage. From a utilitarian approach, these incidents could cause more harm than good. A Santa Clara student-athlete recalls witnessing the outcry from an opposing team’s crowd:, “The first time I was in a gym where I played against someone who took a knee, you could just tell that it was bubbling at the surface when half the girls decided to take a knee, and then you hear within the crowd, you hear the donors saying, ‘Stand up, stand.’ Experiencing that I really just went, ‘Wow.’ It's something that really has to be discussed.” The harm the student-athletes are looking to avoid is that of public backlash against themselves and the university.
The Common Good
The athletic department does not have an official stance on taking a knee. There are members of the athletic department staff who do address the issue head on. These coaches and staff members’ actions could be considered an application of the common good approach, where they want the “option that best serves the community as a whole, not just some members.”
A student-athlete shares his exchange with the team’s recruiting coordinator: “He came up to us [the student-athletes of color] and he was like, ‘Hey, we understand the season’s coming up and all this stuff is going on. As the athletic department, we just wanna know before you guys do anything, just so that we understand how to go about it. And it's not blindsiding us.’”
Another coach addressed the situation similarly: “Coach asked us before our first game, he said, ‘If anyone's gonna take a knee, [I’m] not here for it, [or] against it, just need to know so I'm not... Don't surprise me,’ is all he said.”
From these comments, it seems that these community members simply want to be able to position their response and not necessarily condemn a student-athlete. The result, if a student-athlete were to kneel, would be an option that allows student-athletes to express themselves and for the athletic department to prepare themselves. The result is that “giving a heads” up is an option that appears best for the community as a whole.
The Rights Approach
Respecting others is not only part of Santa Clara’s mission, but also intrinsic to another aspect of the ethical framework: the rights approach. The rights approach asks, “Which option best respects the rights of all who have a stake?” One student-athlete focused on the rights of people and the social justice issue at hand: “I think if you want to take a knee, you have every single f--ing right to take a knee. (…) It's a minority rights issue, and it deserves the amount of attention it's getting, and it's supposed to get even more attention because… I’m not gonna pretend that everything is so nice and sunny in California. It's not.” This quote reiterates what many student-athletes at Santa Clara shared about student-athletes’ and professional athletes’ right to protest on the field. But most student-athletes said that they would not take a knee since they were either not American or they were not African-American, or that they themselves felt differently but would still respect another student-athlete’s actions if he or she were to kneel.
In these candid interviews, I found there is the ability for student-athletes to think deeply about taking a knee. Student-athletes are not only politically aware, but politically conscious. Using ethical frameworks to structure the variety of dialogue allows us to see patterns in thought processes and illustrate a clear debate without erupting into the chaotic divisions currently overwhelming our discussion of this important issue.
 There is mention of “standards” among the men’s and women’s soccer teams who are asked to stand respectfully with their hands behind their back in a line.