I hate what Colin Kaepernick is doing. But what I hate even more are the reasons that made him feel he must.
I love that Kaepernick has reignited a national dialogue. But what I love even more is living in a country where freedom of speech is a muscle we don’t allow to atrophy — because we flex it.
There is nothing uncomplicated about this. What is the right reaction when a prominent American professional athlete, an NFL quarterback no less, refuses to stand during the playing of the national anthem?
It is an affront. Short of lighting a match and torching the American flag in downtown San Francisco, there isn’t much the 49ers’ star could be doing to draw more attention to his protest over racial inequality. Which, by the way, makes his a successful protest — attention and awareness being the idea — even as it agitates controversy and causes an angry backlash.
For those who have spent the past few days incommunicado in a hyperbaric chamber, Kaepernick has taken to sitting in protest as “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played before games. He did it Friday in a preseason game vs. Green Bay. And the firestorm that ensued will last awhile because Kaepernick says he’ll continue to sit until he sees a positive change — perhaps inviting visceral booing of him at home games, and likely more so on the road.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag or a country that oppresses black people and people of color. I’ll continue to sit. I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed,” he said Sunday, explaining himself for the first time. He said he’d stand again for the anthem when “there is significant change, and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to and this country is representing people the way it’s supposed to.”
His specific cause is the many episodes of police officers shooting and killing unarmed black men, often without consequence to the shooter — incidents that have led to demonstrations and unrest across the country, spawning the Black Lives Matter movement.
Kaepernick emphasizes, against a social media backlash, that his is not an anti-military stance, saying, “I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country. They fight for freedom. They fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that’s not happening.”
There isn’t a lot of different between LeBron James wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt during warmups and what Kaepernick is doing in terms of statement and message, but Kaepernick is taking it a step further with something more visceral and polarizing, something that has him vilified as anti-American even as many others support him. And this isn’t wear-a-slogan-on-a-shirt-once and be done. He’ll be under a glaring spotlight before every game, during every playing of the anthem, as he alone sits and sits alone.
It will be interesting to see if Kaepernick’s stance causes other players around the league to join him in not standing. One can imagine some fans doing the same in support — and that in turn perhaps leading to fighting in the stands.
The NFL and 49ers in statements supported the player’s right to not stand. The NFL said in a statement said, “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem.” A 49ers statement was full of patriotism but ended with: “We recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”
Clearly, though, this is a controversy the NFL would rather have disappear, and one that puts the team in a tough spot. Kaepernick has been in the process of losing his starting job to journeyman Blaine Gabbert; no player has seen his stock plummet more in three years than Kaepernick. The 49ers might have cut him, anyway, but if they do now, it will be seen as related to the anthem controversy.
Teammates publicly support Kaepernick, although 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman admitted, “Things like this break teams apart, and we can’t let that happen.”
NFL players in general publicly support Kaepernick, including in Miami.
“You’ve got to respect the man’s opinion as well as his actions,” Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said Monday. “I definitely understand where he’s coming from.”
“That’s his right as an American” as quarterback Ryan Tannehill put it Monday.
Running back Arian Foster had said earlier, “I understand 100 percent what he’s doing. It’s hard seeing people get murdered and killed without repercussions.”
Miami coach Adam Gase, gear in neutral, said, “Our guys in our locker room, if they have certain stances they stand behind, it’s not my right to say, ‘You can’t do that.’ “
For the record, I would not refuse to stand for the anthem in a broad-brush protest against American “oppression” because of the actions of a very small percentage of local bad cops. Then again, I am not a black man who has lived with prejudice or racial profiling or feared for my well-being when I saw flashing lights in the rear-view mirror.
It hurts me in the gut and soul to see somebody not standing during the anthem, but I work to understand Kaepernick’s feelings and respect that he wants so much for a better America. I work to understand his protest because empathy is a good thing in too little supply.
Besides, this great country has a history of civil disobedience and protest; it is a part of the American quilt.
It has touched sports across time. It is John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising fists at the 1968 Olympics. It is Cassius Clay refusing the military draft, which left Clay vilified but decades later saw Muhammad Ali buried a hero. It is WNBA players wearing Black Lives Matter shirts. It is Colin Kaepernick, sitting.
Protest has book-ended U.S. history, from the Boston Tea Party to the next city where the next unarmed person might be shot.
Anyone of a certain age recalls the Vietnam War protests that spread from college campuses across America in the 1960s and early ’70s. Those demonstrations in turn spawned protesting-the-protester bumper stickers that read, “America: Love It Or Leave It!”
I always thought that sentiment strange because I never assumed anti-war protesters didn’t love America, only that they hated war.
Fifty years later I do not assume Colin Kaepernick’s actions mean he hates his country, only that he hates the hate and prejudice still within it.
It’s funny how protest can get so easily misconstrued as un-American when more often it is quite the opposite — an exercise of freedom that is so much a part of our heritage.
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Greg Cote is a columnist for the Miami Herald.