On August 14th, Colin Kaepernick, the backup quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, did not stand with his teammates during the playing of the national anthem, before an exhibition game with the Baltimore Ravens, choosing instead to sit on the bench. Nobody noticed. On August 20th, same thing; another exhibition game, they played the anthem, Kaepernick sat. Nobody noticed. On August 26th, the 49ers played the Packers, in another meaningless exhibition game. This time, Kaepernick’s protest was noticed, and he was asked about it in a post-game press conference. He said “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people who are oppressed.” He later elaborated, speaking to the press for eighteen minutes, answering every question put to him calmly but firmly.
His press conference (which for some reason, I don’t seem to be able to link to), was remarkable. Asked what he was trying to accomplish, he responded:
I mean, ultimately it’s to bring awareness and make people realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust, people aren’t being held accountable for, and that’s something that needs to change.
That’s something that–this country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.
It’s something that I’ve seen, I’ve felt. Wasn’t quite sure how to deal with originally. And it is something that’s evolved. It’s something that as I’ve gained more knowledge about what’s gone on in this country in the past, what’s going on currently, these aren’t new situations.
This isn’t new ground. These are things that have gone on in this country for years and years and have never been addressed. And they need to be.
I’ll continue to sit. I’m going to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me this is something that has to change and when there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country–is representing the way that it’s supposed to–I’ll stand.
One specifically is police brutality, there’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. The cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.
I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. They fight for freedom. They fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that’s not happening.
People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. It’s something that’s not happening.
-Q: Do you personally feel oppressed?
-KAEPERNICK: There have been situations where I feel like I’ve been ill-treated, yes. But this stand wasn’t for me. This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way.
This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and affect change.
So I’m in a position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.
More recently, Kaepernick has changed the manner of his protest, kneeling instead of standing for the anthem, after talking to decorated soldiers who sought him out. He’s been joined by other NFL players, including teammate Eric Reid, and others of his own teammates, and by women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe. President Obama has weighed in, saying “I’d rather have young people who are engaged in the argument and trying to think through how they can be part of our democratic process than people who are sitting on the sidelines not paying attention at all.”
Of course, the backlash has been huge, loud, often irrelevant and viciously ad hominem. Kaepernick was once one of the budding stars in the league, and was offered, and signed, a 68 million dollar contract reflecting what NFL execs thought was his limitless potential. Many comments, therefore, suggested that a) he’s too well-paid to be considered ‘oppressed’ and b) he’s not very good. Play better, and maybe we’ll listen. Bleacher Report‘s Mike Freeman interviewed seven top NFL executives. None of them were willing to be identified for Freeman’s story, but all agreed on how much they hated Kaepernick. One compared Kaepernick, unfavorably, to Rae Carruth, the Panthers’ wide receiver who hired a hit man to murder his pregnant girlfriend.
It’s not just Carruth. The 49ers, Kaepernick’s team, have seen seven players arrested since 2012. Most recently, (just a few days after Kaepernick’s protest, in fact), a team captain, Bruce Miller, was arrested and charged with elder abuse, after an altercation in which Miller, intoxicated, beat up a seventy-year old after knocking on the wrong hotel room door. The NFL has a huge public image problem, after a whole series of arrests involving players for such infractions as spouse abuse, sexual assault, and child abuse. Not to mention two guys, Aaron Hernandez and Carruth, in prison for murder.
So Colin Kaepernick’s dignified, thoughtful, carefully considered protest is seen by at least some NFL executives as more damaging to the carefully burnished image of the league than a guy who murdered his girlfriend. But I can see why. It’s not just the national anthem played before games. The NFL likes to sell itself as wholesome, family oriented, and, above all, hyper-patriotic. Last Sunday, Sept. 11th, was the start of the 2016 NFL season, and the NFL outdid itself in pro-America celebrations, with a huge flag covering the entire field (in every stadium), and flyovers with military jets and salutes to soldiers. And a speech by President Obama, broadcast in every stadium, and loudly booed in most of them. That’s right, President Obama was booed on 9/11. Makes sense. He is, after all, Muslim.
Which is in part my point. It isn’t all that overt yet, but football is a contested space; part of the cultural war. Football isn’t just patriotic; it’s red state patriotic. It’s martial. It’s a sport full of ‘blitzes,’ defeated by ‘throwing the bomb.’ It’s built on the model of a military campaign, battles along a line of scrimmage for control of enemy territory. It hurts me to say this; I have enjoyed watching football for most of my adult life, and remember fondly hundreds of backyard contests. But it’s a violent sport, deeply damaging to its participants. (It can also be beautiful). And proudly embraced, by some, as proudly and emphatically politically incorrect.
And it’s becoming increasingly a regional sport, played more in the South than elsewhere. And, of course, it’s a sport where most of the players are Black, and most of the fans are white. (And where most of the coaches, most of the league executives, and effectively all of the owners are white). Also, played by guys, cheered on by attractive, underdressed young women. (And NFL cheerleaders are badly underpaid and mistreated).
Here’s what I think: I think Colin Kaepernick is acting more patriotically than all the people attacking him. Loving America means loving the promise of America, the ideals of equality and social justice that find such perfect expression in the Declaration of Independence and the Fourteenth Amendment. It means wanting America to grow, to improve, to get better, to actually treat all its citizens equally and fairly. It means protesting when we perceive America falling short of those ideals. The flag and the anthem are merely symbols, not objects of worship.
Good for Kaep. Good for the other protesters as well. Well done.
As a 49ers fan, I also wish Kaepernick was a better quarterback. But that’s a separate, and much less important question.