By BILL DELEHUNT
Colin Kaepernick, a bi-racial quarterback for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, sat during the playing of the National Anthem at three preseason games.
Kaepernick’s reasoning was widely reported as follows: “I am not going to stand up to 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.”
Predictably, this action was seen as being disrespectful to the flag, denigrating America and insulting to the military by self-styled defenders of America. As part of full disclosure, I am a white combat veteran and played my last organized football game for St. John the Baptist Elementary School. Typical of these dinosaurs (dinosaur: Latin for “Large mouth but too small minded for nuanced complexity”) is Craig “Sawman” Sawyer, a fifty-something former military member who disparagingly refers to 28 year old Kaepernick as, “Young Colin.” He writes, “What Colin did by dishonoring our flag and national anthem was effectively to lower his soiled trousers and defecate upon every American patriot who fought for Colin’s protective sanctuary and every American who has ever paid for any professional sporting event, or item.”
The Blaze’s video blogger Tomi Lahren labeled Kaepernick a, “Whiny, indulgent, attention seeking crybaby.” She goes on to say, “Is our country perfect? No. But what have you done to make it better?” Well, Kaepernick has pledged $1 million dollars to charities which will support communities in need and promote racial equality. It will be interesting to see if Lahren matches that donation.
What these purveyors of faux rage seem to have missed is the rest of “Young Colin’s” remarks. Speaking of military members and their sacrifices to defend liberty, including the First Amendment, Kaepernick said in an August 28th press conference, “I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country…they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. 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…. That’s not right.”
From history, we can find another star athlete who would attest to that point of view. In 1942, 2nd Lieutenant Jackie Robinson – yes, that Jackie Robinson, who would break the color barrier in major league sports 5 years later – was court-martialed for refusing a bus driver’s demand to move to the back of the bus. Although exonerated by an all white jury, that racial injustice lead Robinson to write in his autobiography in 1972, “As I write this twenty years later, 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 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
Kaepernick isn’t protesting the military. He’s protesting white Stanford swimmer Brock Turner spending just three months in prison after raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster while the American Civil Libertis Union (ACLU) claims there are more than 2100 blacks serving life-without-parole sentences for non-violent drug offenses. He’s protesting a white police officer choking to death a black man for selling loose cigarettes in Staten Island. He’s protesting white Cleveland cops killing a 13 year old black boy who was playing with a toy gun without investigating the incident. He’s protesting a white cop shooting a black man who is lying on his back with his hands in the air. As Kaepernick said in his press conference, “There is police brutality….There’s things we can do to hold them more accountable. Make those standards higher…(Y)ou can become a cop in six months and don’t have to have the same amount of training as a cosmetologist. That’s insane. Someone that’s holding a curling iron has more education and more training than people that have a gun and are going out on the street to protect us.”
Perhaps the most predictable outcome from this entire episode is that Kaepernick’s method for focusing interest on this issue would overshadow the message. To call attention to any societal problem through an action that can be deliberately misconstrued to raise the profile of detractors is problematic. Donald Trump has said America isn’t great, and he’ll potentially get 50 million votes for president this November; “Young Colin” agrees, and gets pilloried by certain factions. Kaepernick acknowledged that. “It wasn’t something that I really planned as far as it blowing up…the fact that it has blow(n) up like this, I think it’s a good thing. It brings awareness …and we can move forward.”
Sawyer and Lahren both point out that Kaepernick plays a game for a living. If people are going to criticize Kaepernick’s behavior during pre-game ceremonies, can we also question the relevance or the appropriateness of playing this song before games? I’ve been to a dozen or so military funerals. I’ve stood at attention in Arlington National Cemetery for interment of honored remains. Never once have I heard the National Anthem at these ceremonies. Taps is played, and occasionally Amazing Grace on the bagpipes. I’ve attended even more military weddings, where one or both participants are service members, but at the conclusion of the ceremony, Here Comes the Bride is played, not the Star Spangled Banner. So, why do we trivialize this great national symbol by playing it before the most inconsequential of entertainment in our society, ball games? When our hometown Tampa Bay Lightning hosts the Montreal Canadiens in a hockey game, defenseman Victor Hedman must listen to both the Star Spangled Banner and O, Canada, even though he’s from Sweden. Should we play the national anthems of all the countries with players in the game? It seems to be an absurdly logical extension of a questionable practice.
For some, this harkens back to a similar protest during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists in a “human rights” salute as they stood on the medal podium while the Star Spangled Banner was played. Both were subsequently banned from further competition. In a Washington Post editorial, NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote that the most difficult part of this entire episode is that, nearly 50 years later, America still has not resolved the underlying racial problems. “Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.”
In Kaepernick’s mind, this latest chapter in the civil rights struggle is vitally instructive.
“It’s something that can unify this country,” Kapernick said, “If we have these real conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people, if we have these conversations, there’s a better understanding of where both sides are coming from. And if we reach common ground, and can understand what everybody’s going through, we can really affect change. And make sure that everyone is treated equally and has the same freedom.”
Bill Delehunt can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org