On Friday, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during a pre-game rendition of the national anthem. Depending on whom you ask, it was either a bold protest against inequality in America, or an insult to the flag and those who fight for it. Perhaps both. The resulting discussion around Kaepernick’s protest deflates some dearly held pieties not just about race and sports, but also about nationalism.
As when the Los Angeles (then St. Louis) Rams adopted the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture, or when Lebron James donned an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt, Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem at an exhibition game last week against the Green Bay Packers has become a sports storyline turned political, and national: On cable news, it’s not just coaches and players weighing in on the flap, but also actors, activists, politicians, and the like.
On one side we have those coaches offering support (or at least tolerance) for Kaepernick’s actions, such as the 49ers’ own Chip Kelly; on the other side we have Jim Harbaugh, the Michigan Wolverines coach (and former 49ers coach), who called into question the quarterback’s “motivation.” On one side we have Arian Foster, the Miami Dolphins running back who took to Twitter to defend the right to protest; on the other we have Victor Cruz, the New York Giants wide receiver who explained that you’ve simply “got to respect the flag.” On one side we have President Barack Obama; on the other, Donald Trump.
Despite his critics, Kaepernick says he will remain seated for national anthems to come: “I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed,” he told reporters on Sunday. If most fans don’t sympathize with Kaepernick, that’s not surprising; in a league where the fans, per a 2015 Reuters report, are 83 percent white (and skew heavily Republican), using the national anthem as a vehicle for protest is seen more as a hijacking of an American symbol than an act of righteous protest, the sort of thing worthy of jersey-burning, if not worse.
What does it say about America that a protest centered around a time-honored tradition proves more infuriating to the public than the message of the protest itself?
It’s often the way that an athlete’s act of defiance overshadows the message that the athlete is trying to champion. In 1967, long before he had earned a Medal of Freedom or Otto Hahn Peace Medal, Muhammad Ali was slammed by the media for his refusal to enlist in the Vietnam War. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” Ali said at the time. His actions (and comments) sparked outrage even from liberals. But that was nearly 50 years ago; when Ali died earlier this year, the Washington Post called him a “global goodwill ambassador” in the headline of its obituary. Only once an athlete’s radical ideas have become common sense can we honor him with safety.
That same year, runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos were crucified for giving a black power salute during the Olympic Games — an incident that’s now remembered as providing a powerful image for a vital cause, but for which Smith and Carlos were savaged in the press. In perhaps the closest comparison, the National Basketball Association suspended the Denver Nuggets’ Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf for one game after he refused to stand during the national anthem; did anyone remember that this was an incident until I brought it up? Does anyone still think about James’ T-shirt, for that matter?
The singing of the national anthem has been a regular tradition in sports since at least World War II, though its first appearance dates back further, to the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, according to ESPN the Magazine. In a country that reveres tradition, the national anthem is just what you might expect: one more pastime that many would argue is best left unsullied. But what does it say about America that a protest centered around a time-honored tradition — and one with a backstory that is itself steeped in racism — proves more infuriating to the public than the message of the protest itself? This is a country where, even while African Americans are killed by police officers at a significantly higher rate than white people, 30 percent of Americans (including 38 percent of whites) believe the country has already made enough racial progress, according to the latest Pew polls. Kaepernick’s actions are another reminder that not everything is all right in America. For some, that pill can be especially tough to swallow, especially when placed in the context of America’s favorite $45 billion business.
So the real question is: Would seemingly all of America be having this conversation if Kaepernick hadn’t sat during the national anthem? And if not, what does that say about the country’s shared values?