In recent news, a massive wave of controversy has centered around the decision by National Football League (NFL) players and owners to take a knee while the National Anthem is played and American Flag are presented at the start of a football game. Originally, in August 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to ignite the controversy by refusing to stand for the National Anthem (Wyche, 2016). Moreover, Kaepernick explained how he felt he could not stand up for a country who continually “oppresses black people and people of color” (Wyche, 2016). Kaepernick would later opt out of his contract with the 49ers and currently remains a free agent (Daniels, 2017). While other players followed suit, it was not until President Donald Trump injected himself into the heart of the matter. President Trump was at a campaign rally in Alabama to provide support for Roy Moore who was running as the Republican candidate against Luther Strange. This election was to determine the Republican candidate who would face a Democratic challenger for the vacant seat left by previous Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions who went on to become the United States Attorney General shortly after President Trump took office. During the rally, the President stated any “son of a bitch” who took at knee should be fired for showing a lack of respect to the flag (Diaz, 2017). However, the President’s comments channeled a wave of NFL protests in the days following the Alabama campaign rally. Numerous teams took a knee during the days that followed with the Pittsburgh Steeler remaining in their locker room until the entire National Anthem had played (McLaughlin, 2017). These events have given rise to a divide that exists within our society, which could be explained through applied social psychology.
The United States is a country made up of wide diverse groups of people from all over the world. In psychology, diversity is not only representative of the difference between people but is also representative of how diversity can originate from a variety of other sources such as ethnicity, nationality, religion, sex, sexual orientation, physical ability, and social class (Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2005). While diversity allows for the intermingling of diverse cultures together it can have unintended side effects. For example, Schneider et al. (2005) suggested cultural diversity could lead to increased levels of xenophobia and misunderstanding (p. 335). Another potential side effect is demographic diversity, which can result in sexism, racism, and classism (Schneider et al., 2005, p. 335). In this particular case, conflict exists due to the perceived existence of racial disparity between whites, blacks, and racial minorities. For instance, Colin Kaepernick suggested the death of black men by police officers were another reason for his protests (McLaughlin, 2017). Racism as defined by Schneider et al. (2005) is the bias toward a group or individual on the basis of their race or ethnicity (p. 332). Similarly, discrimination is the “actual behaviors” towards a group or individual on the basis of their group affiliation (Schneider et al., 2005, p. 337). Using the framework suggested by Colin Kaepernick and his peers, minorities are subjected to different behavioral responses by others than nonminority populations. These differences in perception provide a source of conflict, which will lead to moments of tension due to incompatible goals between competing views (Schneider et al., 2005, p. 339).
Opposed to the view of the NFL football players are those that view his (and his fellow players’) actions as unpatriotic and are demeaning what the American Flag stands for. This would be representative of the adopted position of President Trump, who would later tweet, “When it comes to the respect of our nation, when it comes to the respect of our anthem and our flag, we have no choice. We have to have people stand with respect” (Diaz, 2017). As a result, there are two sizes who vehemently view their position as the right one. Why does this conflict exist?
According to Social Identity Theory, a person is both aware of the personal identity and social identity (group based identity) when performing critical evaluations against other groups (Schneider et al., 2005, p. 341). In situations where there is negative social identity a conflict can develop due to the perceived difference of status between the individual’s group and the group being used for the comparison (Schneider et al., 2005, p. 341). The authors argue how this can create an us versus them scenario, which pits members of each group on either side of the issue (Schneider et al., 2005, p. 341). Using the Social Identity Framework, we can look at Colin Kaepernick’s original statement to understand the crux of the conflict. Initially, Kaepernick stated he would not stand up for a country who continually “oppresses black people and people of color” (Wyche, 2016). To Kaepernick and his fellow players, there is a disparity between his individual and social group and that of other groups who are not minorities in the United States. This comparison led to a negative social identity comparison where the football players feel there needs to be a change to restore the balance between the groups.
In contrast, the Theory of Relative Deprivation would assert conflict arises in situations where one is deprived of a social category encountered in the past, from another group, a learned idea, or from another person (Schneider et al., 2005, p. 341). Thus, this deprivation could lead to the need for an evaluation towards a certain social category, which if deprived, could lead to conflict. If we utilize the Theory of Relative Deprivation towards this situation, it is clear Kaepernick and his peers are striving for equality between minority populations to nonminority populations. Therefore, Kaepernick and his peers perceive their equality (standard) has been deprived from them and only through their actions can the disparity be resolved and the deprivation removed.
Finally, the Realistic Group Conflict Theory suggests conflict arises from existence of conflicting goals between groups (Schneider et al., 2005, p. 341). Moreover, conflict occurs when precipitating elements such as discrepancy between both groups’ interests and reduced cooperation pit groups against one another (Schneider et al., 2005, p. 341). If we apply the Realistic Group Conflict Theory to the current situation, the football players have a desire to increase the level of equality for minorities, which is at odds with those that feel kneeling during the national anthem is disrespectful or unpatriotic. Additionally, opponents would argue this would not be the correct forum to draw attention to their cause. Therefore, it is those competing interests between the two groups that keeps both sides in conflict with one another (Schneider et al., 2005, p. 341).
Applied social psychology can help to facilitate the reduction of these tensions through coalition building through high acquaintance potential (Schneider et al., 2005, p. 343-344). Using this method would allow groups to come together and extend a dialog to one another to better understand and reconcile their differences rather than polarize to their respective sides without any dialog between the groups. Moreover, the method would help facilitate the contact hypothesis, which would allow for a fostering of better relationships through increased positive contact as long as both groups shared equal status, worked towards a common goal, and had environmental support (Schneider et al., 2005, p. 343). Finally, applying Interpersonal Conflict Management strategies to both groups might help to increase the way in which groups integrate information to better balance a high concern for one’s own needs with the needs of others (Schneider et al., 2005, p. 343).
In conclusion, the NFL controversy is one of the largest social issues currently causing a divide within America in a highly polarizing way. As a result, there is a feeling this situation is leading to an “us versus them” situation as outlined by the Social Identity Theory (Schneider et al., 2005, p. 341). However, it is not too late to begin to reach out, not with the intent to defend our positions, but rather with the intent to understand one another. This would be a perfect opportunity for a person from one side to reach out to the other with the goal of having a dialog. It is only through the understanding of each other’s position can we truly grow as a society. It will not be easy and it will require America to look back and see troubling points within its own history, which will undoubtedly be uncomfortable. However, if we work together, it is my belief we can achieve great things as one group rather than being divided as a nation.
Daniels, T. (2017, April 12). Colin Kaepernick Officially Opts out of 49ers Contract. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2695566-colin-kaepernicks-agents-inform-nfl-teams-qb-will-opt-out-of-49ers-contract
Diaz, D. (2017, September 28). Trump on NFL owners: ‘I think they’re afraid of their players’. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/28/politics/donald-trump-nfl-owners-afraid-of-their-players-health-care/index.html
McLaughlin, E. C. (2017, September 25). These are the NFL players protesting today amid Trump criticism. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/24/us/nfl-trump-take-knee-protests/index.html
Press, A. (2017, September 23). NFL Anthem Dispute: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell Fires Back at Trump. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/nfl-anthem-dispute-trump-says-protesting-players-should-be-fired-n804086
Rogers, M. (2016, September 13). Colin Kaepernick heightens social conversation while dropping to knee. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/martin-rogers/2016/09/12/colin-kaepernick-national-anthem-kneel-protest-san-francisco-49ers-st-louis-rams/90290074/
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2005). Applied social psychology: Understanding and addressing social and practical problems. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE Publications.
Wyche, S. (2016, August 27). Colin Kaepernick explains why he sat during national anthem. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000691077/article/colin-kaepernick-explains-why-he-sat-during-national-anthem