Colin Kaepernick, second-string quarterback for a last-place team, is suddenly the most talked-about, tweeted-about football player in America. All because he refuses to stand while the national anthem is being played.
Unhappy with the frequency of police gunning down young black men and meager response by local, state and federal governments, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback staged a sit-down protest. He later switched to a more respectful kneel-down, but the forces of law and order, repression and suppression still detest him.
The Santa Clara police union threatens to not work the 49ers games, in their own protest of Kaepernick’s protest. How patriotic is this? Police saying they won’t protect the citizens if one of them makes a public complaint about them. Must be nice to have a job where not even one person is allowed to criticize you.
ESPN’s Sports Reporters Bill Rhoden and Bob Ryan questioned the linkage of the national anthem to sports. Rhoden asked: “Do we really need the national anthem to start a game?” Ryan pointed out that it wasn’t played at sporting events prior to World War I.
Personally, I’ve had a tenuous relationship with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I was almost expelled from second grade for not memorizing its contorted lyrics and failing to carry its wide-ranging musical notes. To my young ears it was the worst music I’d ever heard.
A few years later, as a sports reporter for the Daily Texan, I expressed my feelings about the anthem and unnecessary war by sitting in the press box while the anthem was played and Vietnam was being fought over as if it had a trillion barrels of oil under it. My non-stand did not go over well with some of the press corps. One Georgia columnist chastised me in print.
When I eventually visited Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor, I learned to appreciate the song I had tried for so long to ignore. I now saw it as an inspired tribute to tenacious defenders of an enormous battle-torn flag of a republic that might have died in childhood if the Royal Navy had sailed past a cannon-bristling stone fort on a rainy September night.
So yeah, I feel a tear or two when someone sings this daunting song really well and summons the significance and drama of Fort McHenry, which if you add to your bucket list you will not regret.
But unlike the millions on the far right and left, I don’t expect everyone to have exactly the same values. Francis Scott Key was a champion of slavery. People who don’t approve of him or his poetry or what it might represent should be allowed to sit or kneel or hit the bathroom.
Perhaps, if a musical salute to America is needed before kickoff, it would be less polarizing to hear “America the Beautiful,” which praises the patriots who “more than life their country loved and mercy more than might.”
Everyone is weighing in on Kaepernick. Even President Obama, who like the 6-foot-4, tightly muscled athlete is biracial, his mother being white: “He’s exercising his constitutional right to make a statement. I think there’s a long history of sports figures doing so.”
Indeed, in the 1960s when heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused to participate in a war he opposed on moral and religious grounds, he was jailed and excoriated as a traitor. Nowadays not so many people would argue that he was wrong on Vietnam.
In the ’68 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, African-American gold-medal sprinters, stood for the national anthem but raised clenched fists high, to symbolize black power that was all but nonexistent. Many white Americans hated Smith and Carlos, whose statues now stand on the campus of San Jose State University, not far from where Kaepernick has been protesting.
In 1996, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf declined to join his Denver Nuggets teammates at courtside until the anthem was finished for the evening. He saw a ritual that promoted acceptance of oppression of people of color.
For that most silent of protests, commissioner David Stern suspended him for a game. Rauf was not permitted to play again until he agreed to stand for the anthem, but was allowed to have his eyes closed and head bowed. One of the NBA’s finest shooters (91 percent on free throws for his truncated 9-year career), Rauf became an unwanted man in America. He fled the Land of the Free to play in Italy.
When drums were beating in 2004 for what Carlos Delgado called “the stupidest war ever,” the ballplayer protested the shelling of Vieques, a tiny island off the larger one where he was born, Puerto Rico.
The Navy needed target practice. Delgado protested by planting himself on the dugout bench during the seventh-inning stretch, as “God Bless America” was sung. He was discreet enough in his manner, productive enough with his bat (.280 lifetime hitter) that he was not Raufed.
The 18th-century English essayist Samuel Johnson, who considered himself a conservative, famously said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” He might see examples in today’s USA. How much wrong is done in the name of patriotism? How much tax money is spent on military flyovers at football games?
John McCain, the Republican senator who survived bone-crushing torture at a POW camp in Hanoi, is one who believes militarism of football has gone too far. His objection to “paid patriotism” shamed NFL owners into sending the government $700,000 as reimbursement for air shows they’d requested.
The NFL creates the most elaborate public stage possible – Goebbels on steroids — arm in arm with a Military Industrial Complex that the most successful warrior of his time, Dwight Eisenhower, warned against. Kevin Blackistone, an African-American star of ESPN, writes in the Washington Post: “For me it is invigorating to see Kaepernick, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Maya Moore and a few other athletes with access to that stage not just allow themselves to be used by it.”
Kaepernick, whose jerseys have become hot sellers, has been joined in the kneel-down by several other NFL players, including Seattle cornerback Jeremy Lane. Doug Baldwin, teammate of Lane, tweeted that cops should feel offended, that “those who act reprehensibly deserve to be offended. The cops who cover up for their buddies should also feel offended.”
This is not to say Kaepernick has conducted himself impeccably. As Muhammad Ali’s ex, Khalila, put it: “He needs to get off his high horse.”
He did not help his cause by wearing socks with a caricature of a pig in a police cap. And it was inconsiderate not to show for an appearance he’d promised at a Baptist church in San Francisco whose congregation is mostly black.
Jim Harbaugh, his former coach in San Francisco, doubted the motivation of a player who may miss the spotlight after spending much of last season in the shadows of the sideline. A man who poses naked for ESPN’s body issue and displays torso, back and arms festooned with tattoos – fine role model there, Kappy — might be questioned about ego strengths or lack of them.
We might wonder if Kaepernick would be engineering this sort of protest if he were still the Next Big Thing, as he was when leading the 49ers to within a couple of yards of a Super Bowl championship to end the 2012 season.
He would have had many more millions of dollars at risk then, back before defensive coordinators figured out that if you mixed up and disguised coverages and blitzes and kept a “spy” to limit his running, he’s a below-average quarterback.
You can’t go much lower in the NFL than backing up Blaine Gabbert. There are reliable reports of NFL owners “blackballing” him – unfortunate pun here. It’s not likely anyone wants to take on such Distraction, and I do need the capital D.
Even so, Kaepernick has $11.9 million guaranteed for this season. He can easily afford the donation of $1 million he’s promised to charities that fight injustice. He made the final cut in San Francisco, which is arguably America’s most liberal city. This is the perfect place for him to take a stand. Or a knee. But my guess is he’d rather be taking a knee at the end of the game than at the beginning.