Six members of Rock Island High's football team have seized their First Amendment rights and taken a knee. And, like any good protest, it divided the community and this editorial board.
Athletes throughout the country have started using the pre-game national anthem ritual as a moment to highlight racial inequality, a movement instigated by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Some have sat. Others kneel. The more optimistic have joined arms or raised their fists.
Through the simple act of kneeling, a handful of black Rock Island teenagers not only expressed their disaffection but did so through sport, a time honored tradition. Muhammad Ali wasn't just a fighter. Jackie Robinson wasn't just a baseball player. For decades, athletics have played an instrumental role in foisting contentious social issues onto a public that would just as soon ignore them.
The protests, one could argue, are that which have made sport relevant beyond a pastime.
But, as with this editorial board, the reactions ran the spectrum from frustration to full-throated support. The protests saddened one member of the editorial board, who considered it an unnecessary sacrifice of celebrating the best of the U.S. in order to highlight its ills. Another was ready to kneel alongside with the players in solidarity. Black Lives Matter critics demanded peaceful, non-destructive protests, he argued. Well, they got it here.
And it all comes as unrest grips Charlotte and Tulsa following two more police shootings of black men.
Seeking common ground, we debated. We sniped. Tempers flared. Statistics about police shootings were cited. So, too, were opinions about respect for law enforcement and for those who risked their lives for this country.
When it was all said and done, we agreed that, above all else, free speech is the very foundation of any free society. There are no legal protections from being offended. In reality, the most successful protests do offend because they hit home the hardest.
The students, who went out of their way to run the idea past their coaches and teammates, went about it as well as possible. And yet, thanks to our very same commitment to free speech, we welcome the anger aimed at the players and supportive administrators.
Free speech is a two-way street. It's no doubt a lesson the players have learned in the past week. There's no such thing as a constitutional protection from criticism.
That said, the effectiveness of their protest is undeniable. On Tuesday and Wednesday, six white, middle-class Americans on this editorial board spent hours arguing about racial inequality and patriotic symbolism. We're sure that our discussion wasn't an isolated event. These players, whether they meant to, sparked a Quad-Cities wide discussion that's festered for too long.
It mustn't end here. The players have made themselves a symbol. But symbols are only as powerful as the action they represent. School district officials took a strong first stride toward real action this week by supporting the athletes. Anything less would have been an unacceptable assault on free speech. Perhaps forums should follow.
Right or wrong, these high school students are speaking to a belief that people are targeted by society solely because of the color of their skin. Theirs is a complaint that's reverberated through black America for decades. Both major political parties have recognized the failings of disproportionate policing and are rolling back draconian, targeted drug laws.
Locally, police agencies and politicians are improving outreach. But more must be done.
There's a reason that black Americans are taking to streets in protest. There's a reason lawmakers are dismantling the War On Drugs. There's a reason that police agencies are reinventing their approach to their craft.
There's a reason six black teenagers from Rock Island felt the need to defy the most hallowed patriotic convention in order to be heard.
They have our attention. Now let's hash it out.