Colin Kaepernick, that quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers that holds the attention of the American public these days, is living proof that when refusing to stand up, at the right place and at the right time, one individual has the power to make change, helping to shift the national conversation and possibly leading to reform and new laws. But where is all this headed? Is this the makings of a new movement?
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said. “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.”
“When there’s significant change, and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way it’s supposed to, I’ll stand,” he added.
Since the football player took a stand by refusing to stand, other athletes across the nation have followed suit. Washington Spirit soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who is white and a lesbian, did it once, and her team prevented her from doing it a second time by altering their pregame ceremonies rather than “subject our fans and friends to the disrespect we feel such an act would represent.” Kaepernick’s college teammate, Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall got on one knee, as did Kaepernick’s current teammate Eric Reid, and Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane. Members of the West Virginia Tech women’s volleyball team knelt during the national anthem in support of Kaepernick as well, and even 10- and 11-year old kids have been inspired to take a knee. Meanwhile, Team USA hockey coach John Tortorella told ESPN that any player who decides to sit down during the anthem will sit out for the rest of the game.
But things reached a critical mass when the Seattle Seahawks announced the entire team would make a protest statement at the opening game, with the support of their head coach Pete Carroll. And President Obama apparently expressed his support for the NFL player. “When it comes to the flag and the national anthem and the meaning that holds for our men and women in uniform and those who fought for us — that is a tough thing for them to get past,” Obama said. “But I don’t doubt his sincerity. I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about. If nothing else, he’s generated more conversation about issues that have to be talked about.” Meanwhile, the president of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks, said “it’s not a stretch” to compare Kaepernick to Rosa Parks—who, in refusing to give up her seat in the whites-only section of a Montgomery bus, was part of a coordinated effort by the civil rights movement to end Jim Crow segregation.
Kaepernick, like Parks, faces critics and detractors who would vilify and even criminalize him, just as he is praised and celebrated by others. After all, some whitesplainers would argue, how can you disrespect the flag? How can you denigrate those men and women of the armed forces who fought and even lost limbs or died for your right to play football? If you don’t like this country after all we’ve done for you, leave, they’d say. In other words, shut up and throw the ball or, as Trump supporters would say, go back to Africa. Of course, there are veterans who support Kaepernick, and invoke the words of one famous veteran, Jackie Robinson, who said in his autobiography: “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.” In a country where black veterans returned from battle overseas in WWII, only to be strung up from a tree and lynched while still in uniform, like a side of beef in a butcher’s shop, this is food for thought.
For African-Americans, a healthy dose of skepticism over the American experiment is warranted, at the very least. These are the descendants of the kidnapped, brought in the belly of a floating dungeon, only half of them to make it across the Atlantic alive. Once the survivors arrived, they were subjected to an intergenerational regime of physical and psychological torture—a permanent, inherited state of enslavement, followed by Jim Crow segregation, followed by the intractable institutional discrimination, mass incarceration and police violence of today.
“In the case of the American Negro, from the moment you are born every stick and stone, every face, is white. Since you have not yet seen a mirror, you suppose you are, too. It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you.”
Empty coercive patriotism demands that we fall in line, question nothing about America’s history—including the national anthem’s celebration of the murder of runaway slaves who fought with the British in 1812–and certainly stay silent about its current policies. The vitriolic responses to Colin Kaepernick, such as the police unions who threaten a boycott of professional football games, are examples of blaming the medicine for the disease. And what of the oppression and the dead bodies in the street that Kaepernick has raised? Those who reserve their outrage for the protest and make it all about the flag dare not attack the conditions or circumstances that compelled the protester to take action in the first place. Shining the spotlight on the injustices we face today forces us to deal with them head on, which brings discomfort to those with a stake in keeping things as is.
Yet, political protest is a consummate form of patriotism, a demand that the country does right by us, reconcile the rhetoric with the reality, and treat us like human beings in order to earn our respect. And athletes have reflected and shaped the activism of their day, to their own personal detriment, sometimes resulting in the loss of their livelihood and the breakup of their family. Although Muhammad Ali is loved in death, he was labeled a traitor when he refused to serve in Vietnam, and they took his title and his license and sentenced him to five years in prison, forcing him to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to reclaim his name.
During the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, African-American gold and bronze medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood with their black gloved fists raised and clenched. “If I win, I’m an American not a black American but if I do something wrong I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black,“ Smith said. For their sacrifice, the two men were ejected from the Olympics, suspended from the team and treated like enemies of the state. Their families received threats, and Carlos said he lost friends, his marriage fell apart and his wife committed suicide. “One gets a little tired of having the United States run down by athletes who are enjoying themselves at the expense of their country,” wrote Chicago American sports writer Brent Musburger, who called the two men “a pair of black-skinned stormtroopers.” As Dave Zirin of The Nation recounted, the Los Angeles Times accused Smith and Carlos of a “Nazi-like salute,” while the Chicago Tribune called their gesture “an embarrassment visited upon the country,” an “act contemptuous of the United States,” and “an insult to their countrymen.” The paper also called the Olympians “renegades” who would come home to be “greeted as heroes by fellow extremists.”
Meanwhile, the third medalist at the podium that day, righteous Australian silver medalist Peter Norman, was a full part of the protest. An unsung hero of the iconic Black Power fist salute photo, Norman suggested that Smith and Carlos share Smith’s pair of black gloves. Like his fellow athletes, Norman–who had spoken out on racism in the U.S. and against the treatment of Aboriginal people in his native Australia– wore a badge in support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), an organization that called on black athletes to boycott the Olympics, a ban on apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympics, the hiring of black coaches and the restoration of Muhammad Ali’s boxing title. For his role, Norman experienced the end of his career. He was skewered in the Australian media and banned from future Olympic games. When Norman died in 2006, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at his funeral, and in 2012, the Australian parliament issued him an official posthumous apology, however late.
Not surprisingly, Smith and Carlos support Kaepernick today, just as they received support from other athletes in their day, notably the all-white 1968 Olympic crew team. Nearly 50 years later, after a civil rights movement was fought, racism still exists, as does the need for the courageous to step out of their comfort zones and speak out. In this era of multimillion-dollar contracts and endorsements, there is far more money in sports today, and the stakes are higher, but so are the obligations. Socially-conscious athletes are even better positioned to use their fame, popularity and high profile to make history off the field and off the court.
Surely, Kaepernick realizes what is at stake for him personally, though ultimately, he and other would-be athlete-activists have nothing to lose but their chains. And even their fame would not protect them from a police officer’s bullet. What happens next–and whether we are witnessing a history-making moment– is completely in their hands.