To use a saying coined by former University of Michigan basketball great, and current respected ESPN broadcaster, Jalen Rose, this is my “Don’t get fired” column.
I say this, because commenting on the myriad of social, political and cultural issues that surround San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel in protest during pregame playings of the National Anthem isn’t likely to make me terribly popular. However, I don’t particularly care. I have never been more impressed by a football player.
In my opinion, what Kaepernick is doing isn’t just a brilliant example of American freedom and democracy on display, it is exactly the sort of activism and self-awareness that high-profile individuals like NFL players should be encouraged to exercise.
To give a brief recap of the Kaepernick controversy, we should begin at the start of the quarterback’s personal protest against, using his words, the “[oppression of] black people and people of color” that manifested itself in his refusal to stand during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner prior to an Aug. 26 preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. When questioned about his actions, Kaepernick doubled down, stating that he was not “looking for approval” and that he had to “stand up for people that are oppressed.”
Predictably, an African-American quarterback of Kaepernick’s stature taking such an open and aggressive stance has earned him both enthusiastic plaudits and vitriolic personal attacks. Reactions were only magnified when pictures emerged from early August of Kaepernick wearing socks that depicted police officers as pigs while training at a 49ers facility.
Since then, Kaepernick’s one-man crusade for justice has become more refined, more nuanced and more publicly appealing.
“Kaep” has spoken with military veterans — including former Seattle Seahawks long-snapper Nate Boyer — teammates, prominent athletes and journalists ultimately culminating in the transformation of one individual’s spontaneous demonstration into a national phenomenon that has gathered additional adherents, massive media attention and has even compelled President Obama to weigh in on the matter.
In stunning fashion, Kaepernick has managed to turn righteous anger into a movement.
For full disclosure, I, like Kaepernick, am biracial. I am the product of an African-American mother and a white, European-immigrant father. Therefore, although some might dismiss my commentary on the matter as an emotional reaction resulting from a personal proximity to the issue, I hope instead that you’ll treat my opinion as one informed by a unique perspective.
We live in a country that, even five decades after Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington, still faces serious and disheartening problems with racism, urban inequality, police brutality and the oppression of colored people. Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem and his refusal to “honor the flag or anthem” of a nation that has consistently and categorically spat in the face of our people is akin to Muhammad Ali’s own protests against the Vietnam War.
Kaepernick is doing what so many of us, regardless of our public stature or power, refuse to do. He is putting his money where his mouth is.
The San Francisco star has seen his career take a turn for the worse over the past several years, morphing from a Superbowl-bound Pro Bowler into a fringe starter and possible roster cut. To put that all into perspective, this public display of solidarity, on top of his recent performances, could have cost Kaepernick his job.
No NFL team wants players to be a distraction, and quite frankly Kaep is expendable. While he isn’t facing imprisonment like Ali did, Kaepernick’s career could have been over in a heartbeat, but he still chose to stand up and use the platform that his position carries to do something good. While his protest may have begun as something spontaneous and emotional, he has taken the initiative necessary to make it into something greater. Scheduled to make $11.9 million in 2016, the quarterback has already pledged to donate $1 million to charities that help underprivileged communities.
Furthermore, even in its less than savory moments, and I am speaking in particular of Kaepernick’s now-infamous practice socks, his demonstrations have been nothing less than a display of deserved and defensible vexation. It is my interpretation that Kaepernick’s choices and statements have not been condemnations of the entirety of America’s police community, or accusations of racism leveled at the entirety of “White America,” but rather they are examples of the result of pushing a people too far. Quite frankly, we live in a social climate where a prominent black man, athlete or not, is oftentimes brought under fire for displays of anger, disillusionment or a lack of satisfaction with the status quo.
Say what you will about Kaepernick not “honoring the flag,” or “disrespecting his country,” and plenty already have, but I’d like to counter those sentiments. There is nothing more American than standing up for one’s rights and giving voice to those who have none.
Michael Brown can’t speak up against police violence. Eric Garner can’t tell you what he thinks about our country’s institutionalized racism. Alton Sterling won’t be able to talk to you about the myriad socioeconomic issues that black, Hispanic and other American minority communities face.
But Colin Kaepernick can.
So at the risk of letting emotion dictate my opinion, I’d like to say that sometimes sports heroes don’t always earn that status on the field. Kaepernick might not be the NFL’s best passer, or its most adept offensive star, but right now he might just be its most exemplary person.
MARC CUGNON is a senior in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .