A couple of famous athletes were on a panel moderated by KHOU’s Len Cannon Thursday in a lively discussion about the NFL kneeling controversy.
Former Texans All-Pro running back Arian Foster and John Carlos, the sprinter who raised his gloved fist at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, took part before a crowd at the University of Houston.
The controversial gesture started when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the National Anthem in a game last year. It reignited a year later when President Donald Trump called on team owners to fire or suspend players who kneel during the anthem.
Supporters say taking a knee during the national anthem raises awareness of racial inequality and oppression, while opponents say the action is out of place at a sporting event and disrespectful to the country, flag and military.
On Thursday, Foster, Dr. Carlos, former NFL player Ed Thomas and UH African-American Studies Professor Gerald Horne came together at the University of Houston to discuss the issue in front of a large crowd of students.
“This guy Colin and these ballplayers are saying, 'We're not disrespecting the flag. We like the Army… we just don't want you to keep shooting these guys in the street. We don't want these injustices, we don't want these problems,’” Thomas said. “It's not about the flag. How many times do they have to say it's not about the flag?"
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Instead, panelists say it's about issues like unequal treatment in the criminal justice system and lack of accountability for law enforcement that are too important to just "shut up and play," as some critics have suggested to players.
"I would like to see management in the NFL, particularly the Houston Texans, be more proactive in regard to intervening in criminal justice issues,” Horne said.
The panel took questions from students, online and in person, with one asking how to convince people that the effort they’re putting in is paying off.
"Body cameras on police officers, legislation, it's starting to change,” Foster said. “It’s just gonna be a slow process.”
However, a couple of viewers challenged the panel, including a student who said statistics from the Bureau of Justice show 0.6 percent of all police encounters with black men incur police force, compared to 0.2 percent of all police encounters with white men.
“That’s a three times percent increase…but even then, you’re talking about a minute occurrence, no matter who it is,” the student said. "It's very, very rare that you have somebody be physically abused by the police, whether justified or unjustified."
"There are certain things that can't be quantified,” Foster replied. "I get harassed by police officers still. I get harassed by people when I go in the store, and I'm out of town and people don't know who I am. I get followed all the time. That resentment that builds inside of me."
However, both sides at the meeting agree education and dialogue will help America make progress on a problem it’s grappled with for centuries.
"I don’t want to sit here. I want to be home with my woman right now,” Dr. Carlos said. “But I'm here. Why? Because I want to connect with that one person that’s not scared to come in this door. Because this is not a fight for John Carlos. This is a fight for humanity.”