By John L. Micek
You don’t need to agree with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit down during the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner” during a pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers last week.
But you should understand and respect it because it was an act of protest as fundamentally American as Muhammad Ali’s refusal in 1967 to be inducted into the Army for service in Vietnam or runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their arms in a black power salute at the Mexico Olympics in 1968.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media after last Friday’s game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
One of those bodies last weekend was that of Nykea Aldridge, a cousin of Chicago Bulls star Dwyane Wade, who was gunned down last Friday on Chicago’s South Side. Two brothers have been charged in connection with her death, CNN reported.
Her death came just weeks after Wade, joined by fellow NBAers, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony opened the 2016 ESPY Awards in Los Angeles with a comparably well-received call to end gun violence.
How, in the face of that carnage, or, for that matter, anywhere else in America, could Kaepernick, who is of mixed-race descent, be expected to stay silent? Black Americans are justifiably shouting from the rooftops about the violence wracking their communities.
Given that context, Kaepernick didn’t just have the right to protest, he had an obligation to protest. And in so doing, it placed him the tradition of Ali, Smith and Carlos.
Pittsburgh Steelers Star Alejandro Villanueva, an Army veteran, said he understood Kaepernick’s protest, but didn’t endorse his tactics.
“I just think that shotgun blast and not standing up for America is a little bit unfair on his part because it’s not really taking into consideration the minorities that are fighting for the flag, like myself – the thousands of people that are laying their lives to make sure that he can express himself,” Villanueva, a West Point grad and former Army Ranger, said. “So it’s a double-edged sword. Yes you can sit down during the national anthem but know that by doing so you’re kind of praising the fact he can sit down and not have to stand up.”
And because this is a political season, the presidential candidates also felt obligated to get involved. After all, Kaepernick did call Donald Trump a “racist” and suggested that Democrat Hillary Clinton belongs in jail.
“I think it’s a terrible thing,” Trump told a radio interviewer, according to Salon.com. “And maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try. It won’t happen.”
In the wake of his remarks there have been some who have suggested that Kaepernick, a multimillionaire athlete, should just count his blessings and shut up about the pressing issues of the day.
Others have suggested that, after two lackluster seasons, and amid rumors of cuts, that he was either looking to burnish his fading star or force his employer to trade him. That’s as cynical a reading as there is – but it has nonetheless made the rounds.
But again, as sloppy as his execution was, and as confrontational as his tactics were, Kaepernick is forcing the nation to once again confront thorny issues of race, class and privilege. And, yes, you can scoff that these complaints are coming out of the mouth of an elite athlete.
But who else, outside of political and public figures, or even entertainers, has the high-profile soapbox to spark just such a conversation?
“In an America where many of the most powerful people use their power and influence to gain further advantages, widening the gap between their children and ours, Kaepernick has risked more than most people to speak up for you,” Domonique Foxworth wrote at ESPN’s “The Undefeated” blog this week. “Yes, he speaks for you, too, white folks. Whether he intends to or not. Yes, he speaks for soldiers who have died in defense of this country and veterans of war who suffer back at home without the support they have more than earned. He even speaks for the police whose actions prompted his nonviolent demonstration.”
And that’s why Kaepernick’s silent protest is the kind America needs more of – not less.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.