Colin Kaepernick: A sit down touchdown protesting the National Anthem

Listen to this article

Jersey Sure: Protesting the National Anthem

Everyone likes a good protest. Hell, people will settle for a bad one. But a good protest with controversial methods makes for great headlines.

A few Fridays ago, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, made some news by taking a noticeable political stance — sitting in protest of current racial injustice during the National Anthem. It’s your classic “Man meets protest, protest wins and loses fans, causes whirlwind of media attention” story. While many objected, others have called his position heroic. When questioned post-game, he responded:

“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.” He spoke of the police violence, saying “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

San Francisco 49er’s quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2014. (Claudia Gestro)
San Francisco 49er’s quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2014. (Claudia Gestro)

Just to give you a little background information, Kaepernick was raised by two white parents, adopted in infancy. I’ve no doubt he’s heard a variety of racially charged comments, both good and ill-intentioned, and has a different perspective than anyone who has grown up with either no personal understanding of minority status or no experience having their differences put on display 24-7.

August 26th, the day of his protest, just happens to the birthday of my half-sister, whose dad is black. Our biological mother’s attraction to variety (and/or aversion to birth control) thus ensured that we would grow up hearing the question, “Wait, you two are sisters?” every time we introduced each other. Sometimes, even being halfway indoctrinated in the ways of the privileged (read: the “white” culture) does not exactly dampen but rather heighten your sensitivity to the issue. It was clear from the movies we saw that my pale skin could get dressed up as at least one character in the story very easily, whereas she would be told, “But you don’t look like ____,” because that protagonist wasn’t, well, white.

And that’s really pretty insignificant. That doesn’t delve into police shootings, hiring discrimination, hate speech, or any other irrevocably destructive form of prejudice. That’s just plain old discomfort.

While I’m not sure what Kaepernick’s experience has been, he has made a name for himself in the world of professional sports, giving him a pedestal to speak on issues that affect not just him but everyone in the communities he pledges to serve with this protest. He’s probably well aware of that. When your hard work, combined with training and support, translates to privilege in a world that otherwise often oppresses those of minority standing, it often intensifies those all-too-true inklings that life is unfair, unbalanced, or in need of at least a little adjustment — as well as your motivation to change that injustice.

In Kaepernick’s case, the need for an adjustment in American politics and social schemas is more than recognized. Even his detractors have been throwing about back-handed compliments regarding disagreement with his actions, but not his ultimate goal.

Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks maintains that while he loves the flag and anthem, he does “understand the cause.”

However, he states to the Seattle Fox television affiliate KCPQ, “I think about my family members who have served …  [That’s] why I stand and put my hand on my heart.”

Benjamin Watson of the Baltimore Ravens reported to Fox News and the Gospel Herald (a Christian news source known for following overtly religious public figures) that he stands for the anthem to show respect to those who suffered racial injustice in the past.

”I stand because as a child, I saw my father stand. A man who lived the tumultuous transition from ‘separate but equal’ to the times surrounding the Civil Rights Act when angry people who held signs at his new school viciously screamed “N**GER GO HOME.’ ” He added, “I stand because on the contrary, no one held such a sign when I walked into my grade school. Before competition, as I stand in shoulder pads and cleats, my helmet in my left hand, adrenaline flowing and my heart raging under my right, I never forget the ills of America but for a moment I envision its potential, remember its prosperity and give thanks to God for the land He has placed me in and the people I love who live in it.”

With all that explanation, Watson still defended Kaepernick’s actions, in a way that seems to almost defeat his well-articulated defense of his own stance, saying: “His actions and similar actions by figures of the past and present are a vital part of our journey and a key component of the equation for social change and should be respected as such. From the country’s inception, such displays against the status quo are distinctly American. My hope, though, is that these actions bring more attention to the PROBLEM than to the PROTESTER. And that [the ensuing] dialogue discover truth and that truth give birth to justice in legitimate situations where there is none.”

Isn’t that what protests are about though — bringing attention to problems, engaging people in political dialogue, and bringing about clarity?

Of course, the National Anthem is regarded as sacred, to some extent, and it takes real conviction to pull off a protest that refuses to honor something “sacred” because the symbolism just falls flat these days.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (Claudia Gestro)
Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson
(Claudia Gestro)

Interestingly enough, Russell Wilson — who is a standup guy by anyone’s standards, even if we don’t all practice pre-marital celibacy or feel the need to pray before we start our work shift — did say of the issues prompting this protest, “Ultimately it comes down to love, treating everyone equally,” he told the Gospel Herald. Yes, yes it does come down to that. That’s why someone used the song that supposedly represents a nation touting “liberty and justice for all” to bring attention to an incongruence in the symbolic and the real.

However, the protest cannot just be about quotations, media clips and post-game interviews. Kaepernick’s intentions of bringing a renewed focus to solving the social problems now being caught on police cams left and right is admirable enough, but let’s not forget that he’s donating money to the cause he stands (or rather, sits) for. He has pledged to give $1 million to organizations aiding minorities, according to Fox News Sports page, and that may be a small dent indeed as his jersey sales have gone through the roof.

Sometimes, it appears, commercialism can be good, the sacred can be dismantled, and the critics can be a force for positive attention.

•••• •••• ••••• •••• ••••

Editor’s Note: Players across the NFL have followed Kaepernick’s example on this opening Sunday of the NFL season — that just happens to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 2001. Arian Foster, Michael Thomas, Kenny Stills and Jelani Jenkins of the Miami Dolphins took a knee during the Anthem, Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters raised his right fist (like Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City), Brandon Marshall of the Denver Broncos took a knee.

While in China for the G20 Conference, President Barack Obama defended Kaepernick, saying, “When it comes to the flag and the national anthem and the meaning that holds for our men and women in uniform and those who fought for us — that is a tough thing for them to get past. But I don’t doubt his sincerity. I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about. If nothing else, he’s generated more conversation about issues that have to be talked about.”

Top photo by Tim Forkes