Sports arenas and sports pages make for awkward forums in which to discuss rights and responsibilities, but, occasionally, athletes make their voices heard. So it is with Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers’ backup quarterback who refused to stand during the national anthem before the team’s preseason games and, it appears, with a growing number of sympathizers. Kaepernick was protesting what he perceived to be systematic police brutality aimed at African-Americans and the government’s failure to stop it.
The nation shuddered with outrage at Kaepernick’s audacity to exercise his right of freedom of expression. It was shameful to witness the degree of ignorance of a basic privilege – it’s the very first one on the amended list – and sad to endure the posturing that accompanied the outcry.
However, several notable and promising things have happened since Kaepernick was seen sitting out the anthem before Game 3 of the preseason (nobody noticed the first two because, as an injured player, he was not in uniform).
He explained that he meant no slight toward the military or the police and pledged to continue kneeling. He then knelt during the Game 4 anthem while Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret and NFL long snapper and now an advisor of Kaepernick's – sort of the sympathetic face of the authority Kaepernick is protesting – stood at attention with his hand over his heart. Boyer told USA Today that he is brokering a summit between Kaepernick and police officers after the Santa Clara Police Officers’ Association issued a foolish threat to have its members boycott security work at 49ers games, one of several disturbing reactions from a sector charged with upholding the rights of citizens.
After the final preseason game Kaepernick said he would donate the first $1 million of his 2016 salary to “different organizations” to further his cause. He will make at least $11.9 million this season, before taxes.
Other athletes have joined the cause.
Eric Reid, a 49ers safety and a native of embattled Baton Rouge, La., also knelt during the Game 4 anthem and pledged to continue to kneel. Seahawks corner Jeremy Lane refused to stand as well.
On Sunday, U.S. national team member Megan Rapinoe knelt during the anthem before her professional team, the Seattle Reign, played its NWSL game.
“It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this,” said Rapinoe, who, it so happens, is strikingly white; she colors her hair platinum blonde.
Finally, on Monday, President Barack Obama, who is black, was asked about Kaepernick’s protests. The President did not fully ally himself with Kaepernick’s methods or fully endorse his message – he is, after all, a politician – but he clearly supported the 28-year-old multi-millionaire’s courage in exercising his very American rights.
“I don’t doubt his sincerity … I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about. And if nothing else, what he’s done is he’s generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.
“You’ve heard me talk about in the past the need for us to have an active citizenry. Sometimes that’s messy and controversial, and it gets people angry and frustrated. But I’d rather have young people who are engaged in the argument and trying to think through how they can be part of our democratic process than people who are just sitting on the sidelines and not paying attention at all.”
Kaepernick will be doing just that, as it turns out – sitting on the sidelines. He played well in the last two preseason games and made the team as the backup quarterback to Blaine Gabbert. There is every chance he won’t be sitting for long. Gabbert is nothing extraordinary and 49ers coach Chip Kelly’s preferred offensive style suits Kaepernick’s peerless athleticism.
It would be disingenuous and irresponsible to ignore the unseemly subplot to the Kaepernick case. Before his anthem protest became public knowledge he was photographed at practice wearing socks with pictures of pigs in police uniforms and hats, depicting a particularly vile, derogatory term often hurled at cops.
That was wrong, and it was dumb, and despite his protests to the contrary it stigmatized the entire community of police officers. You can only hope that Kaepernick understands this:
Every citizen owes respect and obedience to every peace officer until that peace officer violates that citizen’s rights. Painting law enforcement with a broad tar brush is no more appropriate than discriminating against any group – blacks, Hispanics, LGBT. It is, daresay, worse. Disrespecting the law promotes anarchy, and that is a path no one wants to travel.
But the pig socks and the anthem protest should be seen as disparate events spawned from the mind of an unsophisticated, angry young man. Angry young men and women of every creed pushed the rock this far up the hill.