Fox News's kneeling error and the role of prayer and faith in NFL protests

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Philadelphia Eagles' Zach Ertz (86), Carson Wentz (11) and Trey Burton (88) pray before an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in October in Philadelphia. (Michael Perez/AP)

When more NFL players began taking a knee during the national anthem last fall to protest racism and police brutality, some conservatives criticized them for using an often holy posture to dishonor the national anthem and the American flag.

“We have a saying, in our house anyway. I think it's a pretty good one. You take a knee for the Lord and stand for the flag. Many Americans agree with that,” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Trump, said on Fox News.

Some members of the Super Bowl champions Philadelphia Eagles did routinely kneel in prayer on the field. On Monday night, Fox News misrepresented that action while reporting on Trump's decision to disinvite the team from the White House. Fox displayed a picture of Eagles kneeling in prayer during a segment, conflating that action with the protests during the national anthem.

Trump, who has repeatedly criticized NFL players for protesting during the anthem, made the decision after learning that most Eagles players would not attend the Tuesday event.

Eagles players called out Fox News for being more loyal to Trump and his culture war than to facts. Defensive end Chris Long noted the irony of the conservative network not acknowledging that the men were praying, considering their largely Christian following.

And tight end Zach Ertz also expressed his frustration with Fox for misrepresenting the facts.

Fox News and Shannon Bream, who anchored the segment, apologized for the error.

But to many it was the latest example of the network being more concerned about pleasing Trump and his base than getting the facts right.

Trump and conservative media outlets have done little to publicize the motivations for the NFL players' protests. While Trump, Vice President Pence and other conservatives have consistently portrayed the athletes' actions as un-American — with Trump even suggesting that they should possibly leave the country, one of the main motivations for many of the athletes' protests was their deeply held religious convictions.

When Eric Reid was processing whether to join his former San Francisco 49ers teammate Colin Kaepernick in protest, he looked to his faith as inspiration. He wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

During preseason, my teammate Colin Kaepernick chose to sit on the bench during the national anthem to protest police brutality. To be honest, I didn’t notice at the time, and neither did the news media. It wasn’t until after our third preseason game on Aug. 26, 2016, that his protest gained national attention, and the backlash against him began.

That’s when my faith moved me to take action. I looked to James 2:17, which states, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” I knew I needed to stand up for what is right.

And Kaepernick, the originator of the protest, has spoken extensively about how his Christian faith has helped him put his role as a football player into perspective. He told the Daily Sparks Tribune last year:

I know there were times in the season where you start looking at things, especially this being my first year and not playing. I’d ask God what his plans are for me. What is God trying to do with me right now? For me, there were times where I’d wonder if I was in the right place and in the right situation, and you have to fall back on God in situations like that and trust him and know that his plan is perfect for you. Wherever you’re at, whatever you’re doing, that’s what his plan is for you and you have to make the best of it and keep moving forward and keep striving and things will work out.

Some have defended the football players, saying that few things are as American as free speech. But another fundamental piece of the American experience is the freedom to express one's faith. And for many Americans — including NFL players — faith has shaped their commitment to fighting injustice, loving others and bringing awareness to unaddressed issues.