The phrase “take a knee” has gained a lot of media attention recently after NFL players used the gesture back in 2016 to protest police brutality against African Americans during the national anthem.
The military came into the conversation when those against Kaepernick argued that taking a knee is disrespectful to active duty soldiers and military veterans.
But where did the whole thing start? What does the phrase “take a knee” really mean? Is it a military term or did it come from somewhere else?
Read on to learn more about what “take a knee” means in the military sense, how these interpretations are connected to other ways taking a knee has been expressed, and another expression that pulls everything together.
What does “take a knee” mean in military?
In general, taking a knee in the military is a sign of respect or simply taking a rest while on a mission. It’s a gesture that many soldiers will participate in at the foot of a fallen friend’s grave and isn’t seen as a negative at all.
Additionally, a soldier in the military might take a knee as more of a defensive maneuver. Getting on one knee allows the person to be in a better position, almost like at the start of a track meet, where they able to quickly run or pivot at the drop of a hat.
With the recent news coverage claiming that kneeling during the national anthem is disrespectful to soldiers and veterans, some service members, especially within the Army find the uproar strange.
In the Army, take a knee means that you’re pausing, taking a breather, and stepping back to consider a situation. By no means is it a disrespectful gesture.
In fact, according to Mashed Radish, an etymology blog, when Kaepernick, the football player, recently took a knee during the national anthem at a major NFL game and rekindled the phrase itself, he came to an agreement with Nate Boyer, former long snapper and Green Beret by agreeing to take a knee.
See, when Kaepernick first made a demonstration as an act of protest against police brutality in the U.S. he kept seated during the national anthem. Boyer wrote to him with “frustrated understanding” and suggested he take a knee.
Since taking a knee would both honor and respect veterans and fallen soldiers who risked so much and, in some cases, sacrificed everything for the freedom of our country, the two agreed that Kaepernick could continue to protest for what he believes in while staying respectful to the armed forces.
So, when people start a rampage and get all revved up that football players who take a knee during the national anthem are disrespectful to the military and veterans, it’s quite a false statement.
What is the “take a knee” meaning in military translate to in other areas?
Even though the phrase “take a knee” became re-popularized by Kaepernick and the NFL, its origins span from military to religion to even cultural norms.
Obviously, the definition and meaning of “take a knee”, like most words and phrases, are fluid and often changing. But its history dates back to at least 1960, firmly rooted in American football.
According to another etymology blog called Language Log, the phrase “take a knee” seems to be influenced by other “take” idioms like “take a stand”, “take a sip”, or “take a seat”.
As the blogger went back to search through old digitized newspapers, he found a clipping about the University of South Carolina Gamecocks varsity-alumni football team from 1960. After the recent passing of a beloved athletic director and longtime coach Rex Enright, one alumni player Albert “King” Dixon, Jr. decided to “take a knee” in Enright’s memory during halftime.
This type of knee-taking is reminiscent of how a soldier might “take a knee” for a fallen brother or sister. But where does this sentiment come from?
Perhaps it comes from religion. In most religions of the world, people kneel in prayer to a higher power, deity, god, or gods. Even within the football origins, teams often pray before a game in the locker room by taking a knee.
The way Dixon, Jr. took a knee for his fallen coach seems to fall under this category of prayer and reverence.
Yet, in other football references post-1960, “take a knee” referred to activities more like having a rest or gathering oneself to make a decision. Once again, especially in the Army, this expression linked with “take a knee” seems to have military roots or at least military similarities when it comes to sentiment.
Additionally, in football, a player might “take a knee” during the actual game. Also explained as “downing the ball”, a player in control of the ball would put his knee down to end the play prematurely if it was in the best interest of the team.
So, overall, in American football, one might “take a knee” in prayer before a big game, during a pep talk while listening to a coach, downing the ball and ending play, or to express a moment of solidarity in the way Kaepernick demonstrated.
Going back to religious examples, Catholics would take a knee in front of the altar in prayer or as a symbol of their devotion. It’s an act of reverence as well as adoration.
It’s also obvious in monarchies, where subjects might take a knee to bow to their king or queen in an expression of subservience, submission, love, and obedience or a combination of the four.
Today, probably one of the most culturally accepted ways to take a knee is when one person proposes marriage to another person. Similarly, it’s a gesture of devotion, adoration, and reverence showing submission and humility.
Now, since the Kaepernick demonstration, “take a knee” is used as a way to express solidarity against the racial injustice and defiance against President Donald Trump. It’s an all-in-one phrase where you don’t necessarily have to actually put one knee on the ground. For example, one might say, “Police brutality? I’ll take a knee on that one.” This explains that you disagree without actually physically protesting anything.
It’s even a hashtag on social media in forms like #takeaknee or #taketheknee where people post about their problems with society, especially police brutality against African Americans.
It’s quite interesting how over time these meanings evolve and change based on the current political and social climate from something that was quite a simple gesture to now such a powerful movement.
“Take a Knee, Face Out” Meaning – Military Resilience
We’ve already mentioned a few meanings for “take a knee” that come from a military background. The first being a way to honor and remember fallen soldiers and friends. Another is to take a moment to gather yourself or take a break while on a mission. The third is in a position to be better able to attack at a moment’s notice once a threat becomes imminent.
“Take a knee and face out” is something a soldier in the military might say to express the idea of pulling yourself together and letting go. In that way, it’s the most similar to taking a knee to gather your thoughts, calm down, and have a moment.
As many people are aware, especially veterans and their families, mental health is something military retirees often struggle with. They’ve probably seen a lot during their time in the service and it really messes with them. When returning to civilian life, disorders like depression, anxiety, and PTSD can set in quickly and the effects are devastating.
When veterans can’t find a good job, they’ve lost a friend in battle, they’ve seen people die or killed people themselves, things can go terribly wrong when they re-enter society. They’re at a higher risk for developing alcoholism, drug addiction, and homelessness as a result of these mental issues.
Sure, the VA does everything they can to help our brave veterans, but the work that has to be done within them is often very tough.
So, how does this relate to “take a knee, face out”? In general, it’s about moving on and letting go.
When you take a knee, you pull yourself together, you push away the negative thoughts and painful memories. When you face out, you go into the future with an open mind and an open heart. You put the past behind you and you let go of what’s hurt you, accepting that it might never be easy.
Although there isn’t any tangible evidence of what “take a knee and face out” actually means, you can get an idea of where a soldier is coming from by reading this open letter where he concludes with the thought-provoking phrase.