(above image belongs to the NY Daily News)
San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick has received a lot of heat since he decided not to stand during the singing of the Anthem in honor of the U.S. flag. The move was symbolic, meant to show Kaepernick’s frustration with the continued racial injustices that face African Americans and other minorities in the United States. Here are his words on the subject:
“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 told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “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.” (NFL.com link)
Despite the criticism that he received, Kaepernick continued his protest in the very next preseason game, this time kneeling instead of sitting, but still refusing to stand in honor of the flag and the country it represents. Fans at the game booed him, but he stood (knelt?) his ground.
In the days since these protests, the internet has been torn over what Kaepernick is trying to do. On one side, critics slammed the young quarterback, accusing him of being ungrateful to the country that allows him to be paid millions of dollars to play football. On the other side, many people (including many veterans) cited freedom of speech/protest as a core American value, which means that Kaepernick should have the right to protest the Anthem and the Flag. Many of his colleagues in the NFL chose sides, often arguing over Twitter.
I have written a few articles on this site that look at problems of race in video games, tabletop games, and our society. Obviously, then, I agree with Mr. Kaepernick that there are plenty of problems with the ways in which minorities are treated in the U.S. Is this the way to address those problems? I don’t think I can answer that question.
When we tell people that they aren’t protesting the right way, or that their approach to solving injustices is not the right approach, we are often guilty of tone-policing. Tone-policing happens when instead of listening to the message that someone is trying to convey, you focus on the tone with which they convey it. This can happen during an argument, when you might say to your spouse, “Maybe if you stopped yelling at me, I would listen to you!” In reality, that person has probably resorted to yelling because you were not properly listening when they tried to communicate their issues in another way. Most people do not enjoy yelling at another person.
Similarly, I strongly doubt that Kaepernick enjoys having fans boo him, or even enjoys that he’s feeling so much disappointment in his country that he cannot bring himself to honor its flag. Those who do not follow the NFL are probably unaware of just how tenuous the life of an NFL Quarterback can be. Unless you are truly elite, like a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Cam Newton type QB, you are constantly playing for your job. Kaepernick is no exception. The 49ers have paid him a lot of money, but he is not a guaranteed starter, and calling this kind of attention to himself is not doing himself any career favors.
So here we have a man who feels so strongly that his country needs to be changed, in fundamental ways, that he is unwilling to engage in the ritualized saluting of the Flag. We should consider what would lead someone to do this before we move to condemn his actions. For most of us, the flag represents a combination of many things. It’s a symbol of liberty, yes, but it’s also a representation of our society. We are taught to love the Flag, as we are taught to love our country, because it helps protect us and has allowed us the opportunities that we enjoy. But what if you looked at the Flag and it reminded you that millions of people, just like you in some fundamental sense, were not being granted the same opportunities? Would you still salute it? Should we automatically salute the Flag, just for being the Flag?
I am a white, cisgender, hetero-normative, male. I am reasonably attractive, by most standards, well educated, from a middle class family. This has opened doors for me, and even in those times when it has not, it has never closed doors to me, much less locked them. I have not experienced people in authority looking at me suspiciously because of the color of my skin. I have not had to defend my attraction to other people, or my way of life, or anything else that is fundamental to who I am as a person.
As a result, I cannot fully imagine what it is like to be in Kaepernick’s shoes, where he sees a bit of himself every time he sees a minority incarcerated, beaten, shot, or simply treated with less than the normal respect that most of us take for granted. But I’m willing to try. So let’s put ourselves in his shoes for a moment. Yes, he has a lot of money, and he personally has benefited from the extraordinary athletic gifts that he possesses both naturally and as a result of his hard work. Despite all of that, he knows some people will always see him as inferior, because of the color of his skin. He also knows that minorities that have not hit the NFL lottery in the way that he has must face prejudice every single day.
But he has a platform. The eyes of the nation are upon him. They want him to shut up and play football. They don’t want to hear about his political views, unless they are safe views (e.g. “Everyone should vote!” or “I just think we should all be nice to each other!”). He’s asked to pretend that nothing is wrong, to be thankful that he was given what he has been given, even as others continue to be oppressed.
Is it really a surprise that he might balk at this role? Kaepernick is not calling on people to riot. He’s not inciting violence. This is about as peaceful of a protest as one can make. Another, more famous quarterback, Tom Brady, has apparently been silently protesting the power of the NFL over his life for the whole preseason. I doubt that he will get anything but support, as others agree that the NFL might be abusing its power. From Kaepernick’s perspective, the issue of racial inequality is not being fixed quickly enough, and he does not want to celebrate a country that has this fundamental flaw.
Kaepernick is exercising a fundamental right that is protected by the First Amendment. When politicians suggest that he should leave the country, they are missing the point that this protest is about making the country accountable. Whether I agree or disagree with how he goes about this isn’t really relevant. It’s not for me to agree. What I know is that he has gotten a conversation started, or perhaps he is continuing an ongoing, but much needed conversation. Either way, I definitely support that.