Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 1, 2016

Colin Kaepernick’s Decision, And Ours

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be attending the PGA Tour’s Deutsche Bank Championship on Sunday and Monday. Hopefully the remnants of Hurricane Hermine will not. Barring a washout at the TPC Boston golf course there will be no post on Sunday.

Far more attention is being paid to Thursday night’s NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and the San Diego Chargers than a final preseason contest normally warrants. Although to be precise, the focus is not on the meaningless exhibition itself, but rather on what happens in the moments before the opening kickoff. That’s when 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is expected to continue his protest against what he sees as a pattern of racial oppression in the United States by refusing to stand during the playing of the national anthem.

Kaepernick has staged his sedentary protest before all three of his team’s previous exhibition games. However between the crush of people on an NFL sideline and the fact that he wasn’t in uniform for the first two contests, no one noticed until last week when San Francisco played at Green Bay. Asked after that game why he remained seated on the bench during “The Star Spangled Banner,” Kaepernick said “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.”

The 28-year old quarterback, who has gone from leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl just three and a half years ago to a backup in danger of being released when final roster cuts are made this weekend, is scarcely the first athlete to use a patriotic symbol as the vehicle for wading into political controversy. A decade ago, when all major league baseball teams were playing “God Bless America” during the 7th inning stretch in the wake of 9/11, Carlos Delgado refused to join his teammates in standing on the field, citing his opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 1996 Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets preceded Kaepernick in refusing to stand for the national anthem because he believed the flag was a symbol of oppression. Three decades earlier, in an image fans of a certain age can immediately call to mind, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood with their heads bowed and black-gloved fists raised during the playing of the anthem for a medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

In all of those instances the immediate reaction generated enormous heat but precious little light. Such has predictably again been the case in the wake of Kaepernick’s protest. He was called an “idiot” by NASCAR driver Tony Stewart, and that was one of the less strident condemnations. An executive with one NFL team labeled Kaepernick a “traitor” while another lumped him in with Rae Carruth, the former wide receiver who was convicted of conspiring to murder the woman who was carrying his unborn child. Not surprisingly, those making such incendiary comments found the courage to do so only behind the cloak of anonymity. Speaking of incendiary, there were of course the requisite videos of 49er fans burning their former hero’s jersey.

On the other side those rallying to Kaepernick’s defense, while fewer in number, were no less strident. Singer John Legend and others denounced the anthem itself, finding in its largely forgotten third verse a stanza celebrating slavery. Several columnists praised Kaepernick’s “courage” in glowing terms.

Thus as is always the case, fans are expected to choose sides. Kaepernick is either evil or virtuous, utterly wrong or profoundly right. In these debates it is hard to find anyone holding out for nuance, or seeing things in what might pass for a shade of gray.

Part of that is because of the power of symbols. What was once just a song or a bit of colored cloth acquires mystical meaning when it becomes the national anthem or the flag. That is especially true in this country, where there exists a unique conjunction of those two symbols and our games. Here every sporting event of significance cannot begin without the playing of the national anthem, fans standing in salute to the flag.

This is not the case around the globe, nor is it here with our other entertainments. The crowds paying absurd prices for the chance to see “Hamilton,” the wildly popular musical about our founding fathers, don’t begin the evening by joining in singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” But no Seacoast Mavericks’ game can start until the recording of the anthem has blared through the loudspeakers at Leary Field in Portsmouth.

Yet by making his protest Kaepernick himself became a symbol, and isn’t it at least possible that there is something to be said for symbols of all kinds?

The rancid mutterings of the anonymous NFL executives aside, the fact that the quarterback can act as he has without fear of being arrested is the most awesome reminder of the qualities the flag and anthem represent. One can also hew to the obvious truth that all lives do matter while still recognizing that for many people of color history and personal experience necessitate loudly proclaiming that black lives matter not more, but as well. One can accept the reality that just like plumbers or politicians not all policeman are honorable without lessening the respect one pays to the local constabulary for the security it provides. One can acknowledge and even admire the professional and financial risks that Kaepernick is taking and still find his subsequent decision to wear socks depicting cartoon pigs in police attire to be nothing more than juvenile showmanship.

When these events occur, one always hopes that after the heat of the moment has passed, a conversation might continue. However halting, surely it could only help to move the country, if only in small steps, away from the nation’s original sin and towards the elusive but eternal goal of a more perfect union. Or we can all just retreat to our corners and scream at each other, our only apparent and base ambition being to see who can yell the loudest. Like Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit, it’s a choice we all must make.

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