When Colin Kaepernick’s teammates stood for “The Star Spangled Banner” on that late August afternoon the 49’ers player must have known what his decision to take a seat would bring. “There’s a lot of consequences that come along with this,” Kaepernick said later. “Those are things I’m prepared to handle.” The fur started flying within days: fans described him as spoiled and ungrateful, a few burned replica jerseys, and his ongoing protest has been fodder for cable news talkers and presidential candidates. Initially I had a hard time believing the effort was much more than a publicity stunt; the pig socks and Castro t-shirt brought more attention to the quarterback than his cause. He talked, kneeled, and did little else. That changed when the former Nevada University reserve agreed to donate $1 million to a pair of bay area organizations dedicated to “the cause of improving racial and economic inequality” according to a statement released by franchise owner Jed York on the heels of his own $1 million dollar donation.
Kaepernick is not the first athlete to talk about police and gun violence. LeBron James led a group of four in prepared remarks at this year’s ESPY awards. Michael Jordan later issued his own statement and donated $1 million to the NAACP and the Institute for Community-Police Relations. Maybe a few people at home threw a shoe at their television or complained about the political hijacking of another award show, but there was no real backlash. The difference this time goes beyond Kaepernick’s confrontational manner — it’s largely irrelevant — and points towards choice of venue. Professional sports leagues have a decades-long history of including either “God Bless America” or “The Star Spangled Banner” in their games. The arenas and fields that host them are politically neutral ground, but have been a place to gather and commemorate major events like the assassination of John Kennedy and the September 11 attacks. When the former Super Bowl quarterback made his stand on that field he invited critics to question his patriotism.
The notion that patriotism is a “love it or leave it” proposition is silly, a way of thinking analogous to looking at a house with a broken window and repeating the same slogan in lieu of replacing the window. It’s also a cheap, sometimes effective way of forcing dissenters to shut up; a bit like comparing an adversary to Hitler. If Kaepernick is guilty of anything it’s spreading vague hyperbole. He’s talked about police “getting paid leave for killing people,” and said he would stand “when there is significant change and…that flag represents what it is supposed to represent.” It doesn’t help the cause when allies like President Obama misleadingly cite a “constitutional right to make a statement” in his defense. The 49’ers star is facing censure from a wary public, something the Bill of Rights does not offer relief from. Assuming the NFL were foolish enough to sanction Kaepernick there would still be no First Amendment violation to rant about on Real Time.
A new stage has begun in the protest movement now that the regular season is underway and players from Seattle and Kansas City to Denver and Miami are showing solidarity by taking a knee, locking arms, and raising fists. At some point the displays will become routine and even the sports media will lose interest without a new wrinkle. The missing element is not sincerity: there is little reason to doubt the player’s commitment, but it remains to be seen where their crusade goes from here. As the group’s nominal leader any search for answers should start at Colin Kapernick’s front door. An obvious motivator is police use-of-force, so criminal justice reform could be a factor; it would be interesting to find out what “significant change” entails because so far I haven’t seen details from San Francisco’s would-be catalyst. In any case, the one-time Chicago Cubs draft pick has set a high standard for himself as a warrior fighting oppression who would be a voice for the voiceless — one that calls for more than writing checks.
photo provided by the blaze.com website