On August 14, during the first NFL preseason game, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick elected to remain seated during a rendition of the national anthem. He did the same on August 20. His act went unnoticed both times.
At the third preseason game, the media and fans finally caught on. His gesture received extensive media attention and scrutiny in the following days and weeks. At a postgame interview, Kaepernick stated, “I am not going to stand up and 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.” He went on to say that he would continue to protest until he feels the American flag “represents what it’s supposed to represent.”
Unsurprisingly, Kaepernick’s protest sparked immediate response across the full spectrum of opinion. While many of those opposed to the protest have framed his actions as an affront to the military, the attempt to discredit Kaepernick ignores the fact that his stand follows a long line of prominent sports figures making strong political statements and is borne out of the urgent necessity of his cause.
Many critics have cast the right to protest as one granted by the military and have visualized Kaepernick’s protest as an insult to the armed forces. Former New York Jets quarterback and sports commentator Boomer Esiason said, “I find it completely disrespectful, not only to the military, but to the men and women who wear the blue uniform and protect our cities every day.” During a recent game, a fan held up a sign that read, “Kaepernick: have you thanked a vet lately? For the right to disrespect our flag.”
In a technical sense, this idea is misguided, as the right to protest is not granted by the military. As politics and sports journalist Dave Zirin notes, “The military doesn’t give us the right to protest, the Constitution does.” It is a nationalist insinuation to suggest that a flag could be “disrespected” through protest. Airing one’s voice is a hallmark of a democracy, not a threat to it.
It is often said that the military “defends” our freedom — a peculiar concept. The word freedom has become a bit of a cliché in post-9/11 America, and most think of the word as synonymous with the American dream: democracy, upward mobility, and equal justice and happiness. In fact, it is this very lack of “freedom” that Colin Kaepernick is protesting.
It is slightly difficult to pinpoint exactly why people see Kaepernick’s protest as an affront to the armed forces. A protest is an essential aspect of democracy. If it somehow contradicts an undemocratic instrument (such as the military), then perhaps that is a dangerous sign. Perhaps we are no longer thinking in terms of free speech and equal voice but instead paying fealty to an institution without addressing the severe problems that face our society.
Perhaps Kaepernick’s choice to sit during the national anthem itself does not sit well with people. There are some who likely associate the Star Spangled Banner with paying respect to our country’s heritage (including its flag) — a sentiment to which the military is apparently connected. In response to this antimilitary critique and to the strongly negative reaction to his actions, Kaepernick has focused his protest on racial tensions in this country and has taken painstaking efforts to respect military members. On September 1, Kaepernick stood and clapped when members of the military took to the field, in contrast to his critics’ portrayal of his protest. That game was also the first in which he kneeled during the national anthem instead of remaining seated in an effort “to show more respect to the men and women who fight for this country.”
This action demonstrates that Kaepernick’s protest is in no way incompatible with support for the military. It also shows that, contrary to his critiques’ beliefs, his decision to kneel during the national anthem isn’t a disrespectful one (and thus simultaneously disrespectful to the armed forces), but instead is an attempt to draw attention to his protest, which has nothing to do with the military. A #VeteransForKaepernick trend also sprang up, with many armed forces veterans praising Kaepernick for his stand in the face of intense scrutiny. Former Army Ranger Rory Fanning was particularly vocal in his support of Kaepernick and of the cause for racial equality. Asked what made him decide to “sit with Kaepernick,” Fanning responded, “Because he’s right. We know there’s no accountability for police when they murder African Americans at unprecedented rates…Last year 1,200 people were killed by police, zero of which resulted in convictions for murder or even manslaughter.” Fanning and other vets understand that Kaepernick’s protest, despite its misinterpretation, is about the systemic racism and prejudice that still maintain a strong grip on the United States.
Despite multiple years of focus and protest on the subject, police killings of people in color in the United States have yet to abate. 25.8 percent of African Americans live in poverty today — a substantially higher number than the poverty rate for whites, which sits at 10.1 percent. While these numbers and statistics cannot begin to explain the legacy of racism in America, it is this inequality that Kaepernick is protesting. Kaepernick grew up in a white adoptive family and felt that he was treated differently from his family members, an experience that give him firsthand experience with racism. Despite his now-elevated position in society as an athlete, Kaepernick is sensing the urgency that his black brothers and sisters are facing and is attempting to use his social prominence as an athlete to add to the chorus calling for racial justice.
Kaepernick’s protest — along with its positive and negative responses – fall into a long tradition of sports as a vehicle for showcasing political beliefs. In the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens, an athlete of color, famously dominated the games and challenged Hitler’s ideology of white supremacy. Thirty-two years later and just after the peak of the Civil Rights Movement at the 1968 Olympics, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos held up black-gloved fists while the Star Spangled Banner played at their medal ceremony, and they described the gesture as a “human rights salute.” The event is one of the most famous political statements in modern sporting history.
At that time, reactions to the Smith and Carlos protest were strong but not typically viewed as an affront to the military. According to Dave Zirin, “When they raised their fists, they were called unpatriotic traitors…But there were few if any instances of them specifically being called ‘antimilitary.’” Even if the negative reactions to both protests weren’t identical, they do have similar undertones. They generally accuse the protester(s) of disrespect for the symbols of our country, and more divisively and undemocratically, accuse him of being a “traitor.” The attempt to silence opposing views by trying to malign and alienate those airing the views is not democratic. Free speech means respecting the right of others to air their views no matter how much they may contrast with one’s own.
Recently, more athletes have spoken out for causes similar to the one Kaepernick is bringing to light. At the ESPY awards in July, NBA star Carmelo Anthony said, “The system is broken, the problems are not new, the violence is not new, and the racial divide definitely is not new, but the urgency for change is definitely at an all-time high.” Fellow star Dwyane Wade followed up by saying, “The racial profiling has to stop. The shoot-to-kill mentality has to stop. Not seeing the value of black and brown bodies has to stop. But also the retaliation has to stop…Enough is enough.”
Kaepernick’s protest certainly has neither fallen solely on critical ears nor remained a one-man show. His original protest of one man kneeling on the sidelines has blossomed into a nationwide following of NFL, college, and even high school players. Entire high school teams have even been photographed taking a knee in support of the causes that Kaepernick’s protest highlights. These nationwide acts of solidarity serve as a way of inspiring local communities to examine their attitudes toward the topics Kaepernick is protesting and to perhaps work toward fairness and justice. Especially in communities that revolve around local high school football teams, such an act makes confronting Kaepernick’s protest unavoidable.
The wildfire-like spread of the protest further illustrates how successful a tool sports can be for advancing political ideas. While many view sports as an escape from reality, an apolitical place of community togetherness, the popularity of sports naturally provides athletics with an immense platform. In 2015, the top twelve shows of the fall were NFL games. 202 million fans tuned in to watch the NFL in 2014. That same year, the NFL brought in $7.24 billion in revenue. As such an intensely followed, multibillion-dollar industry, the NFL seems to be an ideal stage to take a political stance. Because the industry reaches so many people, using sports as a vehicle for protest can potentially engage those who may not have been abreast of such movements. Even President Obama has waded into this debate and has defended the quarterback by saying, “He’s exercising his constitutional right to make a statement. I think there’s a long history of sports figures doing so.”
The speed with which the Kaepernick protest has taken hold points to the popularity and publicity of sports in the United States, and while political demonstrations are less consistently accepted by sports fans, Kaepernick’s protest deserves to be viewed in that same charitable light. He is using his platform to try to help America and Americans, and it is important to remember the reason for his protest as such.