I admit, I hate reaction to reaction pieces in most instances. You're beginning to read one from me right now, and while this in many ways only fans the flames of incendiary nonsense instead of starting meaningful discussion about deep-seeded issues, they shouldn't. Hopefully, the piece you are about to read about Colin Kaepernick's protest does spark discussions that are necessary, rather than 140 character badly thrown barbs at each other.
Last night, Colin Kaepernick decided to not stand for the national anthem before the Packers-49ers preseason game in protest.
"I'm not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he said after the game last night. "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 away with murder."
Kaepernick is a "controversial figure", largely because of how his play has dropped precipitously from the season in which he lead his 49ers to the Super Bowl. While being benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert is pretty bad, his on-field performance is entirely irrelevant to this discussion. He is someone who has been a very vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and issues that have great importance to black America. He was called a "thug" for his tattoos during his and the 49ers rise to success earlier in this decade, so these "controversies" are not new to him. His taking a stand for issues bigger than football, especially in a league that doesn't like controversies like these as the NFL does, is admirable and should be praised.
But, as is customary, there is a major backlash to his protest. Most of the rebuttals are typical responses ranging from "protesting during the national anthem is the wrong time to protest"to "why would he protest a country where he could make the money he has" and of course, "if he doesn't like it here, he can leave". Most of these arguments have come from people who supposedly want to "Make America Great Again", though they never considered leaving to Canada even once, but again, that's missing the point.
Dictionary.com defines a protest as, "an expression or declaration of object, disapproval or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid". The critical phrase in that definition is "powerless to prevent or avoid", and Kaepernick's protest is exactly that: a protest against the disproportionate violence against black people and the systemic and institutionalized racism that permeates our country. As an individual, even one with as much stature as he has, there is little he can do individually, other than start a discussion and potentially a movement. He is using his stature, much like Muhammad Ali, Mahmoud Abdul-Raouf and many others who wanted to protest issues facing this country by not rising during the national anthem, as is well within their rights to do so. But it is how the discussion of the protest that is defining this discussion, not the protest itself, and that's a shame.
In 2016 America, these protests are becoming almost ubiquitous. The Minnesota Lynx wore Black Lives Matter t-shirts in protest after the killing of unarmed black men just outside of Minneapolis, as is well within their right. That protest was met with much the same call as Kaepernick's protest was, and it's time to address these concerns one-by-one not to discount the right of people to disagree with it, but to show that there is a double standard that needs to be addressed.
"Protesting during the National Anthem is the wrong time to protest": As we saw in the definition of protest, there is never a "right time" to protest. In the first amendment (the same first amendment many are using to defend their points of view), it reads: "Congress shall make no law... abridging... the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to protest the government for a redress of grievances". The crafters of the Constitution knew explicitly that protesting the government needed to be protected because of precisely an argument like "there is a wrong time to protest". The country we are now having this discussion in was founded and created largely because the people couldn't protest the government for a redress of grievances. Once we lose that right because people say "there is a right time to protest", the fabric of what made this country begins to decay.
Then we see the second phase of this argument, which goes something like this: "The American Flag and the Anthem are indelible marks of freedom, liberty and American values and protesting them devalues that". I argue it actually strengthens it. There is nothing more American than protesting the government, and Colin Kaepernick is exercising the most basic and most powerful American ideals by doing exactly what his detractors are saying he isn't doing. Also, symbols are projective surfaces, and what they mean to one person doesn't translate evenly across all experiences and all sets of values. What the American flag means to me could be entirely different to what it means to someone in rural Alabama, or inner city Detroit, and that's the beauty of a country like our own. Accepting this as a bedrock foundation of our country is important, and that doesn't mean forcing your views onto someone else.
The third phase of this argument, which is arguably the weakest goes like this: "Kaepernick shouldn't protest because he has made millions of dollars in this country, and if he doesn't like it, he can leave". Just because someone has made millions of dollars in sports, business, entertainment or hitting the lottery doesn't mean they suddenly don't have a right to care about the political future of their country. Many people with more money than Kaepernick has use their wealth to dramatically influence policy in this country, and they don't get the same backlash for their opinions and beliefs as Kaepernick does. And the idea if someone doesn't like how the country is being run, then they should leave is so incredibly reductionist it almost borders on insulting. The problems facing many people like Kaepernick won't go away if he moves to Canada, for instance and if he doesn't then those he supports lose a critical voice in the discussion, while the tenor of the discussion doesn't change. "Leaving the country" is tantamount to putting your head in a bucket of sand to pretend problems don't exist, or turning to sports and saying "they're an escape".
I've written countless pieces on this website over the years about how sports and politics are forever linked, and to think otherwise is willingly turning your head the other direction, but especially in a year like 2016, these discussions and controversies are going to keep on occurring and the backlash will be exactly the same every time. This points to larger, underlying divisions in our society that go beyond Kaepernick's refusal to stand during the national anthem (or criticizing Gabby Douglas for not putting her hand over her heart during the anthem at the Olympics, when white athletes did the same thing and nothing was made over it, for instance). Athletes like Kaepernick have so much influence in the public sphere and they should be willing to use it to talk about political issues they feel need to be talked about without the fear of the backlash. More and more athletes, particularly black athletes, are doing this now and they should be applauded for it. Issues cannot be fixed without discussion first, and someone needs to spark that discussion. If singers, actors and other artists are allowed to do this, why can't athletes? And why can't they be just as vocal, if not more vocal, then their fellow American citizens?
Kaepernick's stand might well damage his career to a point where he cannot save it, and he acknowledged this and, even better, doesn't care. "This is not something I'm going to run by anybody. I'm not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed... If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right." And standing up for his beliefs in the face of that is what makes this stand and protest so important. He is like many other athletes who want to protest who know the capitalistic pressures put on them usually prevent them from protesting, and only very few can rise above that pressure. The fact that he doesn't care should encourage more athletes in similar positions to his to follow his example, and once enough of the public backs those stands, so too will the endorsers, teams and leagues. The 49ers statement, while not wholeheartedly endorsing his stand, didn't bury him either and showed some support for his endeavor. We may never know what is happening behind the scenes, but the public moves by the team are a good sign. The NFL's statement is much the same, and while they could easily say more, it's easy to understand why they aren't.
This entire controversy drives right into the heart of the racial divide in this country right now, and no matter whether we've made any progress in recent years, the fact that I'm writing this piece reminds us all that we still have a long way to go. And while we all can respect differences in opinion on this and other issues, as well as the right of people to have and own those differences, that goes too for opinions we don't agree with, and in many cases we might think are "wrong".
That is the crux of what the American flag means to me, and Colin Kaepernick, and millions of other Americans. The fear of the backlash should not discourage protests from anyone, and hopefully what Kaepernick has done is removed some of that fear for athletes and others willing to protest in the future.
There is nothing more American than protesting the government. Fear is un-American. All of us should not be afraid of other opinions and political viewpoints, because once we are, we are failing to uphold those true American values.