These days, with cameras on every cellphone and the proliferation of online content and social media such that content is easily shared and thus highly visible, not much that we as human beings do goes unnoticed. The NFL, of course, one of the most successful organizations in professional sports today, is no exception. That’s why when running back Marshawn Lynch took to the sidelines and enjoyed some celebratory Skittles once upon a time, or quarterback Mark Sanchez tried to sneak a bite of a hot dog while as the quarterback of the New York Jets, or when Sanchez, still with the Jets, um, picked his nose and wiped it on his teammate’s jersey, word got around, and because the Internet remembers everything, these athletes will always be linked to their less-than-private moments.
It is no great wonder, therefore, that Colin Kaepernick’s recent actions and comments concerning police brutality against African-Americans and the overall treatment of blacks in the United States have caused such a firestorm of controversy. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback—though whether or not he will actually remain on the team has been in question even before he started gaining attention for his political and social stances—has caused a stir among casual football fans and even those people who don’t follow sports for his decision not to stand up for the playing of the national anthem before the start of a recent preseason contest. Here’s what Kaepernick had to say about his very public, ahem, stand on the issue of race relations in America:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
Colin Kaepernick is not mincing his words here, and I am of the belief that he shouldn’t with respect to a subject of such relevance today, necessitating talk of expanding the use of body cameras within police forces and activism on the part of Black Lives Matter and other like-minded groups. Certainly, though, others disagree with his viewpoint, not to mention the form of his protest, and made their objections to his silent refusal very vocal indeed. Former New York Giants running back and current CBS Sports radio show host Tiki Barber, for one, voiced his displeasure with Kaepernick’s actions, saying this:
I agree with his desire to continue the narrative. There are issues in this country. That, you have to commend him for. But I don’t commend him for sitting and not honoring this country and our flag.
Barber, for his trouble, was roundly criticized for aiming to lecture someone on their behavior when he, among other things, ditched his pregnant wife for his 23-year-old blonde “sidepiece,” but at least his argument was a more nuanced one. Others were more unequivocal, with athletes from other sports such as John Daly and Tony Stewart going so far as to call Colin Kaepernick an “idiot.” And lest we envision this as merely a black-vs.-white controversy, instead of a red, white and blue one, former NFL player and sports personality Rodney Harrison had to recently apologize for comments he made in anger that Kaepernick isn’t really black (Colin was born to a white mother and raised by white adoptive parents). Clearly, not all current and former players support Colin Kaepernick, and perhaps fittingly, there aren’t clean divisions of opinions along racial lines regarding the biracial quarterback’s protest.
However seriously football players, athletes and other critics are taking Kaepernick’s refusal to stand, for those who disagree with it, the same types of comments seem to predominate, and I think each is worthy of dissection on its own merit.
“He should respect the flag.”
Jerry Rice, whose legacy among the greatest wide receivers ever to play in the National Football League is unquestioned, is among those who believe not standing for the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner equates to disrespecting the American flag, and by proxy, I guess, America. To say that Colin Kaepernick, by staying seated, it is disrespecting the flag, however, may be to make a faulty assumption. The Supreme Court has affirmed twice within the past 30 years that flag desecration, in particular burning, is protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution as “symbolic speech.” Granted, one can’t just go taking other people’s flags and burning them all willy-nilly, but like it or not, people can burn the flag however they want, barring context-specific restrictions. In Kaepernick’s case, he is merely refusing to stand, and certainly not bringing flames into the situation. Literally speaking, the QB isn’t doing anything to make a demonstration against the Stars and Stripes.
“He’s disrespecting the men and women who serve our country.”
In his explanation of the reasons behind his actions, there’s nothing to suggest Colin Kaepernick is showing a disrespect toward or protest against members of the United States military, let alone those who serve and protect the public faithfully as officers of the law. Kaepernick’s concerns are with systemic bias and prejudice against blacks and other people of color in America, and accordingly, reflect frustration with racial inequality rather than specific individuals. Either way, again, he is not making any pointed attacks against our servicemen and -women, and is simply showing his discontent for the status quo. Moreover, it is not out of character for him, as he frequently posts civil rights-oriented material on social media.
Such is apparently the state of today’s hyper-patriotism where any perceived slight against our soldiers or against the United States, whether this takes the form of choosing not to stand for the playing of the national anthem, criticizing the endless War on Terror (and bear in mind, this is a knock on the mission and its parameters or lack thereof, not the troops themselves), or not wishing to throw piles of money at the Department of Defense, is liable to earn someone of an opposing viewpoint a harsh rebuke. However, it is not as if our veterans would necessarily think raging against conscientious objectors to standing for the Star-Spangled Banner is the right course of action. Going back to 1989 and the notion of flag desecration, before United States v. Eichman reaffirmed flag burning is protected as free speech, President Bush signed into law the Flag Protection Act of 1989, and who protested by lighting cloth aflame? It was Vietnam veterans, furious in thinking they put their lives on the line so that future generations could have fewer freedoms. As they would have it, they fought for the sanctity of the Constitution, not for a piece of colored fabric that costs $20 or less at the local store.
“There’s a time and a place for that kind of protest.”
This paraphrases the thoughts of Alex Boone, an offensive lineman now with the Minnesota Vikings, who admittedly has a bit of a personal connection to the Stars and Stripes and to our Armed Forces with a brother who served as a Marine in deadly combat situations. Here’s some more of what he had to say when interviewed by reporters and asked how he would’ve handled the situation if he were still playing for San Francisco, in his own words:
See, I’m a very emotional person. So I think if I had known that, my emotions would’ve been rolling—I think we would’ve had a problem on the sideline. And I get that he can do whatever he wants. But there’s a time and a place. Show some respect, and that’s just how I feel.
With all due respect to showing respect, Alex, what exactly is the right time and place for such a protest? At 3 AM in his living room—with no one around him? This is the big problem I have with people suggesting there’s a time and place for a protest. I think if it were up to people like Boone, such a show of dissent would never occur, at least not in this country. Often enough, when people offer some pointed criticism of the United States that is judged by others who are self-appointed arbiters of patriotism as borderline heretical, they will offer something along the lines of, “You don’t like it here? Why don’t you leave?” Presumably, these angry defenders of America’s virtues would be apt to point the original critic to Canada, or Europe, or some other region assessed to be a home “for pussies.”
Barring the logistical difficulties of suddenly relocating upon request, this kind of thinking, despite the “best” intentions of the jingoist expressing herself of himself, is the most un-American expression of them all, in that it tries to squelch those opinions the expresser doesn’t like, thereby ironically limiting expression. It is thereby antithetical to our American ideal of the “home of the free.” In modern-day political and social theory, a mindset outside of black-or-white thinking seems to be one of a dying breed, such that one must agree or disagree with a political candidate, ideology or party in sum, or else risk looking wishy-washy or whiny. Speaking of black and white, as we must keep stressing, Colin Kaepernick is sitting out the playing of the national anthem because of the need he feels to express his anguish at seeing African-Americans get routinely shot and killed by police, a sentiment that already has been co-opted by the kinds of people who see Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist” organization and inherently anti-cop or anti-white (see also All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter). Now throw a perceived slight toward past and present members of the military into the fray, and there’s no way Kaepernick’s message can survive over the shouting. Or, as Dylan Hernandez, writing for the Los Angeles Times put it, “A well-meaning Colin Kaepernick starts a conversation that, sadly, seems headed nowhere.”
As you might imagine, not everyone has been critical of Colin Kaepernick, though it should be noted few public figures have fully embraced him, either deferring to the idea “it’s a free country,” or saying they feel his message is important without “approving of his methods.” Hall of Famer Jim Brown says he is behind Colin 100%, though for him, the top issue is young black men killing other young black men. Perhaps the best defense of Kaepernick’s stance, meanwhile, comes not from a civil rights attorney or even a fellow football player, but rather a basketball player. Like Brown, this man carries quite a bit of clout as a legend of his sport, as well as someone very politically engaged on a personal level. In an recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar reflects on how our response to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand reveals more about what we think and how we express our patriotism than it does him (Kaepernick). From the beginning of Abdul-Jabbar’s essay:
During the Olympics in Rio a couple of weeks ago, Army Reserve 2nd Lt. Sam Kendricks was sprinting intently in the middle of his pole vaulting attempt when he heard the national anthem playing. He immediately dropped his pole and stood at attention, a spontaneous expression of heartfelt patriotism that elicited more praise than his eventual bronze medal. Last Friday, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand with his teammates during the national anthem. To some, Kendricks embodies traditional all-American Forrest Gump values of patriotism, while Kaepernick represents the entitled brattish behavior of a wealthy athlete ungrateful to a country that has given him so much.
In truth, both men, in their own ways, behaved in a highly patriotic manner that should make all Americans proud.
The discussion of the nuances of patriotism is especially important right now, with Trump and Clinton supporters each righteously claiming ownership of the “most patriotic” label. Patriotism isn’t just getting teary-eyed on the Fourth of July or choked up at war memorials. It’s supporting what the Fourth of July celebrates and what those war memorials commemorate: the U.S. Constitution’s insistence that all people should have the same rights and opportunities and that it is the obligation of the government to make that happen. When the government fails in those obligations, it is the responsibility of patriots to speak up and remind them of their duty.
Kareem goes on to say that Kendricks’ and Kaepernick’s actions carry meaning because they involved sacrifices; for Sam Kendricks, he broke concentration to salute his country, risking poor performance. In Colin Kaepernick’s case, he made a stand knowing full well this could jeopardize his place on the team and in the National Football League, as well as cause sponsors to bail on him, and yet he did so anyway, vowing to continue his protest as long as he deems sufficient. Both seemingly small gestures are much bigger than the sum of their physical requirements.
It also should be recalled that Colin Kaepernick’s protest is not the first of its kind in sports. Basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, some 20 years ago, sat during the playing of the national anthem for a game in opposition to America’s “oppression” and “tyranny,” a decision which was instrumental in the demise of his NBA career. In Major League Baseball in 2004, Carlos Delgado did not take the field for the playing of “God Bless America” over political objections, for which he caught his fair share of heat, too. Going back further in time, there are a number of salient examples of political protests in and out of sports. The flag-burning at the hands of Vietnam vets has been discussed, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar likewise touches upon it in his editorial, but we would be remiss if we didn’t mention John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s “Black Power” salute in the 1968 Olympics, and obviously, Rosa Parks’ historic act of “sitting down to stand up” is alluded to in the title of this article. Colin Kaepernick is no Rosa Parks, but his stance on police brutality is important, particularly because this is 2016 and we still have so far to come in this country with respect to race relations. If we can put aside our emotions and prejudices long enough, we might be able to use this event as a springboard for an authentic discussion about race and other related issues. With the NFL regular season soon to begin, however, and with a presidential election not far behind, I worry that larger discussion will be quick to get swept under the proverbial rug as a function of the calendar year and the 24-hour news cycle, and that is indeed a shame.