In this blog, Mathilde Vanasse-Pelletier looks at the issues raised by the secular appropriation of the religious gesture of kneeling by protesters in the National Football League (NFL).
Kneeling as a Religious Gesture
Throughout history, the gesture of kneeling – or genuflection – has been ascribed various meanings in different social and cultural contexts. Popularized in the Middle Ages, it was used religiously to represent a sense of remorse for one’s sins or feelings of confidence, loyalty, love, and worship. While genuflection was never restricted to a religious context, often being used symbolically in political rituals, scholars agree that its universal connotation is one of respect, deference, humility, vulnerability, and belittling of one’s self. Members of different faiths today still kneel as part of several religious and spiritual rituals, such as collective and individual prayer in the Christian and Muslim traditions.
Genuflection also has a special place in sports, particularly in the sport of gridiron football (American football). Athletes will often kneel to listen to their coach talk or in a show of solidarity and respect when a teammate or adversary is injured. The gesture also has a religious use in this context, as players, coaches and staff will often take part in a collective prayer before and after games while kneeling. Some athletes also choose to kneel for individual prayers in the endzone or on the sideline before kickoff. National Football League (NFL) quarterback Tim Tebow popularized the act of kneeling in prayer during his time at the University of Florida, a gesture which turned into a viral sensation known as “Tebowing.”
From Kneeling as a Sign of Respect to Kneeling as an Affront to American Civil Religion
More recently, genuflection has been used with a secular, or nonreligious, twist after the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to take a knee during the US national anthem to protest racism and police brutality.
When he first started protesting, Kaepernick decided to sit on a bench behind the line of players and staff standing for the anthem. After his protest was first noticed during a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers on August 26, 2016, Kaepernick met with ex-Green Beret Nate Boyer, who encouraged him to kneel rather than sit. Boyer found genuflection more appropriate, as it mimicked the gesture used by soldiers to pay respects to a fallen comrade, thus Kaepernick agreed to kneel.
Despite the honorable intent behind kneeling, Kaepernick and the players who later joined him received harsh backlash from NFL fans and the media. While their intention was to draw attention to important social issues, many observers interpreted his actions as disrespectful to the country’s values, ideals, and institutions, and especially to the military men and women who sacrificed their lives to defend them.
Since genuflection, normally considered a religious gesture of reverence, was used in the context of a secular protest and misinterpreted by critics as a way of disrespecting America and its most sacred rituals and institutions, I decided to ask Canadian Football League (CFL) athletes about their views concerning this controversy. This research was part of my larger research project.  I conducted 20 qualitative interviews with professional football players and coaches from the CFL during the spring and summer of 2020. Throughout the interviews, I paid particular attention to the use of the gesture of kneeling in the football world as described by the participants. Below, I draw on some of my results to briefly show how kneeling has been transformed from that primarily of a religious gesture to one more nonreligious in nature: a gesture used to draw attention to important social issues in a largely nonreligious context.
Unity and Solidarity
Out of the 20 players and coaches interviewed, 18 indicated that they support the protests, 1 stated that he found the protests were not an efficient tool to bring about social change, and 1 did not explicitly voice support or opposition. Moreover, many athletes mentioned that they would participate in kneeling if the protests reached the CFL.
Out of the 20 participants (13 Canadians and 7 Americans), none indicated that they felt the protests were an affront to the anthem, the flag, or institutions such as the military. On the contrary, most interviewees (13) believe that the protests are in no way disrespectful and addressed this issue, which relates to social change, directly. For example, Mark, a CFL player turned coach, feels strongly that kneeling is a peaceful gesture of denunciation that is completely in line with fundamental American values:
“[…] it was an extremely peaceful gesture which demonstrated […] a denunciation. […]. It is part of the fundamental values of the constitution of the United States of America, freedom of expression. […] I don’t think he [Colin Kaepernick] ever wanted to disrespect the military, the flag, or even his own country.”
Fellow coach Dennis thinks along the same lines, as he sees the gesture of kneeling as a sign of unity:
“I don’t see it as a disrespect for their country, […] or a disrespect to the anthem. It’s a symbol of unity with a cause that they strongly believe in.”
The gesture of kneeling in this context is understood as a tool used to bring attention to important issues of social change. Eric Reid, who was the first player to accompany Colin Kaepernick in protest, stated that one reason they chose to kneel was to resemble “a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” By taking a knee, players were lowering themselves in mourning. Accordingly, Grant, one of our participants, strongly believes that NFL players should continue to kneel until change comes and all citizens are allowed the freedom and justice that the flag is supposed to stand for.
Genuflection has historically been understood as a gesture of respect and reverence in both religious and secular contexts and is still widely used as a contemporary mark of devotion. In the world of football, putting one knee on the ground is used to show respect and solidarity to injured athletes, but it has now been repurposed as a sign of unity in the context of protests against racism and police brutality. Such unity is important in professional football as a context which brings together athletes from diverse ethnic, religious, geographic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.
While kneeling is often constructed as a religious gesture – including in the world of football where it is frequently used by athletes partaking in individual and collective prayer rituals – the participants in this study never referred to genuflection in the context of the protests as a religious act, but rather as a nonreligious act of contestation. Overall, my results show that despite the backlash received by NFL protesters from critics who believe their kneeling is a sign of disrespect to the US national anthem, the flag, and the military, insiders from the world of professional football tend to see the kneeling as 1) a show of unity and solidarity; 2) as a way to mourn for the lives lost due to acts of police brutality against people of color; and 3) as a tool to bring awareness to the issue of racism in the United States.
 Przemyslaw Mrozowski, “Genuflection in Medieval Western Culture: The Gesture of Expiation – The Praying Posture,’ Acta Poloniae Historica 68 (1993): 26.
 Ana-Maria Jerca, “Taking a Knee in American Football: A Semiotic Case Study,“Language and Semiotic Studies 4, no.1 (2018): 41-42.
 Mrozowski, “Genuflection in Medieval Western Culture,” 26.
 Jeremy Sabella, “Posture of Piety and Protest: American Civil Religion and the Politics of Kneeling in the NFL,” Religions 10, no.8(2019): 457.
 Sabella, “Posture of Piety and Protest,” 457.
 The project looks at the habits and routines of professional football players, in addition to exploring the controversies surrounding the NFL anthem protests. CFL rosters mostly consist of players from the United States and Canada, some of which have made previous stints in the NFL.
 Names have been changed to protect participant’s privacy.
 Reid, 2017 quoted in Ana-Maria Jerca, “Taking a Knee in American Football: A Semiotic Case Study,” Language and Semiotic Studies 4, no.1(2018): 43.
Mathilde Vanasse-Pelletier is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. She received a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Montreal in 2019. Her current research focuses on the routines and habits of professional athletes, as well as on the “Take a knee” protests in the NFL.