On Racial Justice and “Taking a Knee”: Reflections from a Former Cheerleader

BY TIFFANY LEE | October 17, 2017

In my eight years cheerleading and additional three years as a coach, I always enjoyed the sidelines. Between the game and the fans, I especially enjoyed feeling like part of the action in both directions: being so close to the field and also cheering, stunting, tumbling, and performing for the fans.

Admittedly, since I did not grow up watching football, there was a bit of a learning curve, and I didn’t always 100% understand what was going on in the game. The more games I attended and the more I watched and learned from those around me, the more useful basic football knowledge I picked up. We certainly made mistakes in the process, though—calling defense cheers when they had just switched to offense and vice-versa, or having a veteran cheerleader call a cheer that the newbies hadn’t learned yet, only to stand there awkwardly while the majority cheered and motioned in sync, and we tried to mimic their motions and mouth words we didn’t know in front of bleachers full of fans.

One of the traditions I learned quickly and remember fondly is that of taking a knee when a player is injured—any player, regardless of which team. Both sides of football players and cheerleaders would take a knee for however long that player was down, until he got back up and we would all rise, applaud, and resume the game.

Again, we made mistakes here, too. Being on the sidelines in between fans with an elevated view of the whole field and a line of (usually) very tall football players, we cheerleaders (on average, not as tall, and unless we happened to be a flyer in a stunt at the time) did not always see every play on the field. Therefore, we would have the unfortunate, awkward moment at times of being mid-cheer when a player got injured, still cheering until we realized what had happened and quickly followed suit to take a knee. The cheer would wind down like a ripple, prompted either by dirty looks and shh’s from the stands, or by reacting belatedly seeing other players and cheerleaders take a knee. We would follow, even if we couldn’t see the injured player. Even if we didn’t see the play. Even if we didn’t know which team the player was from. Even if we didn’t quite understand what had happened or how the injury occurred. Even if it wasn’t convenient to kneel. Even in the rain, kneeling in the mud. We took a knee because someone was in pain. No matter what jersey they wore, what color they were sporting, which school they represented. We took a knee because, for a moment, humanity, empathy, compassion, were more important than the game. The game stopped and we were all one. And we all cheered when he got up.

Sadly, I’m not surprised but am deeply disturbed by the racism on display, and the recent disparaging remarks from leadership in our country about players’ rights to express themselves and draw attention to grave racial injustices.

However, I am a bit perplexed at how any football fan familiar with this tradition of taking a knee doesn’t see the reverence and deep significance of what Colin Kaepernick and others are doing. To use football as a metaphor, with the field representing society, a player taking a knee recognizes that there is hurt and pain among us—that we ought to bow down to recognize that suffering.

St. Ignatius College Preparatory students in San Francisco, CA kneel before a game in 2016.

The patriotic or team-player thing to do seems to be to take a page from our cheerleading mistake playbook and set the embarrassment, confusion, or temporary ignorance aside and just take a knee alongside your teammates, recognizing that someone is in pain and our humanity is more important at this moment in time.

We may not have been on the front lines of the hurt and pain of the injustice, we may not have had a bird’s eye view of it, we may be just catching up, not realizing the extent of the hurt yet, we may make mistakes and be embarrassed, but that doesn’t mean we don’t start by taking a knee and catching up on why after.

If you’re still confused about the reason for the hurt and pain that Colin Kaepernick and others are acknowledging and calling attention to, let’s listen to those who are on the front lines of racial injustice or who have a bird’s eye view. Let’s dialogue. Let’s watch and read the news. Let’s read and refresh our historical knowledge about racial injustice, and understand that there’s a long, deep history of racial injustice in our country and in our world that is alive and well today.

But let’s not get defensive and pretend it doesn’t exist just because we don’t initially see it, or insist that it’s disrespectful to take a knee or that the game, or the flag, or the song, are more important than the actual humans that all these symbols are really about and really meant to represent.

Because if we let the flag itself, or the anthem itself, become greater than our ability to relate to one another’s humanity, pain, and suffering, are the flag and anthem really worth anything anymore? If there’s anything I learned in cheerleading that’s stayed with me, it’s valuing that moment of solidarity, of reverence, and acknowledgment of the pain and suffering of another human being as being important enough to stop time, and to come together and cheer when they rise again.

3 replies
  1. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    What a great connection! I participated in the same tradition as a player and a coach as do my own kids. This reflection is spot on!
    Thank you for this!


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