Whether you agree or disagree with Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit down during the national anthem as a way to protest racial injustice across the country, his right to do so as an American citizen, who is fully endowed with the freedom of speech and expression, is unquestionable.
Will his action, or lack thereof, spark a larger conversation on social justice, police reform or the broken justice system, or, in other words, will it get us talking about something other than Colin Kaepernick? Probably not. The opinion of a multimillionaire who plays football for a living is unlikely to move the needle. But what he has done, perhaps unknowingly, is lay bare the utter hypocrisy and contradictory ethical standards of more than a few head coaches and team executives in the NFL who have all but demonized the man for daring to take a stand for his convictions.
In a league that has been awash with nearly unbridled patriotism — bordering on psychotic nationalism — for decades, here is a guy expressing one of the nation’s founding principles: Resistance to injustice and oppression. Quite literally, there is nothing more American than that — arguably even more American than the so-called “paid patriotism” the government tried to generate when it gave the league $6.8 million for “military pageantry” at football games. The NFL supposedly paid back the money, but the same kind of manufactured, robotic, obligatory patriotism, with endless renditions of the national anthem, prayers and American flags as far as the eye can see — just in case we forget what country we live in — continues at nearly every sporting on almost every day of the week in every county in the union. Because, you know, if we tell ourselves America is the greatest nation on the planet over and over and over and sing to each other about it and pray hard enough to gods who somehow let us slip from the top spot because we now allow gay people to get married and be themselves in public without fear of getting stoned to death and because of whatever sins are being committed right now in Las Vegas or New Orleans, maybe, just maybe, it will be true again someday.
So, there you have it. The Kaepernick effect. Even if protesting the anthem will have little, if any, real world implications or lead to an open dialogue on the problems that plague our nation, Kaepernick has reminded those who needed reminding that we are far from the greatest country in the world, and until we stop the killing of unarmed people in the street and put an end to the culture of protectionism inside the criminal justice system, we will be far from it.
And it is this painful realization that seems to explain the unfiltered vitriol that has come from his detractors in recent days. They seem to think that sports is hallowed ground. They seem to think that when the lights go on, if we can just come together in a few fleeting moments to watch 22 guys rip each others’ heads off, all the world’s problems will just dissipate into thin air. In short, Kaepernick exposed the relatively insular world of professional sports to the ugly realities on the street and to a string of injustices that have rattled a nation, some of which, almost certainly took place mere yards or miles from the towers of excess we call American football stadiums.
I, for one, thought he put his rationalization in the plainest of terms:
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.
And the San Francisco 49s acknowledged that Kaepernick did nothing wrong by staying seated. Players are encouraged to stand for the anthem, but are not required. According to the team:
The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”
While player reactions have been mixed, the rage over Kaepernick’s actions burned bright and hot in front offices across the league, as seven executives said they would not want the quarterback on their team, according to the Bleacher Report. Each of the seven suits said about 90-95 of other front desk execs agreed with their sentiments. Other comments got plain nasty. One executive called Kaepernick a “traitor,” while another threw this dart:
He has no respect for our country. Fuck that guy.
And here are the thoughts of one general manager in the NFL:
In my career, I have never seen a guy so hated by front office guys as Kaepernick.
As it turns out, folks who have, or are still, profiting mightily from their gainful association with the NFL have done a lot worse than refusing to stand up for the national anthem. The Will Smith movie, “Concussion,” has already exposed NFL officials’ wanton disregard for player safety in the past, and the league’s pattern of doling out soft punishments for domestic abusers like Greg Hardy and Ray Rice is nothing short of disgraceful.
I’m not going to attempt to approve of and justify all of Kaepernick’s behavior. Wearing the pig-cop socks was probably a little beyond the pale, although not without precedent in pop culture, but the NFL has committed vastly more egregious offenses than simply allowing a player to exercise his right to conduct peaceful and silent protests in the name of justice.