“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” —Muhammad Ali
This week has found me totally captivated by the story of Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, and his decision to remain seated during the playing of the national anthem before a preseason football game. When asked after the game about this highly unusual action, Kaepernick explained himself:
“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. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder. …This is not something I am going to run by anybody. I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. …If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
BOOM! Fire started.
The backlash was instantaneous and venomous. Social media was flooded with videos of people burning their Kaepernick jerseys—this age’s trendy way to protest a player’s actions—images that were quickly picked up by the mainstream media. Memes slamming him were everywhere on Facebook and Twitter. Everyone seems to be weighing in. I have heard commentators in and out of the sports world, as well as other professional athletes, describe his actions as “ungrateful,” “unpatriotic,” “selfish,” and “pathetic.” There has not been a lot of support. That much is clear.
I have actually been pleasantly surprised, though, by the number of sports people who have at least acknowledged that the cause he is trying to stand up for—or, rather, sit down for—is an important one. But most of these same folks still think the anthem is the wrong way to address it.
Much of the pushback seems to be military-related, as in, “You disrespecting the flag/anthem is a slap in the face to all of the people who have ever fought for the freedoms you are exercising with this action.” Another argument seems to go more like, “How dare you disrespect the flag of a country that allows you to earn millions for throwing a football? This country has given you everything!” There are certainly others, but these themes are pretty constant.
Nobody seems to be questioning if he has the right to do it but just whether he is right to do it. The most common answer: No matter what your issue is or how big it is, you just don’t disrespect the flag or ignore the anthem.
But, really, why not? Is the answer that black-and-white? Should it really be that simple? I don’t know.
I suppose I grew up thinking of the anthem—and the American flag—as “sacred,” something that you just didn’t mess with. No matter what. Sort of like The Bible, I suppose: you could Pinkie Promise or swear on your life and maybe get by unscathed if you broke it, but you didn’t dare put your hand on The Bible and swear your oath unless you were absolutely certain. It was flirting with the Devil. I remember being in complete shock when I first saw someone burning the American flag on the news. I couldn’t believe it. I just didn’t know that was even an option. I suppose that for most people, something like that happened when they heard about Colin Kaepernick’s protest, like “What? No. You don’t get to sit for the anthem!”
For some reason, though, I didn’t have that reaction. Don’t get me wrong, I was startled by it, because I knew it was taboo. But I wasn’t outraged. I wasn’t even really dismayed. More than anything, I was fascinated.
I think I was fascinated as much by my own reaction as I was by his motivations and how it would be received. I was aware that I was okay with what he did, but I felt really odd about being okay with it? I wondered if I should be as outraged as almost everyone else seemed to be. But I just wasn’t. I think it was because the more I considered the issue, and particularly his motivation for sitting out the anthem, the more I realized what a complex web of issues was involved. It was a lot more grey than simply black or white.
I know that much of the sentiment against Kaepernick and his statement can be summed up something like this: “He’s a disrespectful coward, and he has no gratitude to the country that has made him rich and famous. Pathetic!”
I understand that sentiment. I really do. I think it’s the easy reaction, and if things were only black or white, I would probably end up with that reaction, too. But, as I try to empathize with him and really take the words he says seriously, I find myself feeling another way.
My guess is that Colin Kaepernick grew up a lot like I did, and probably like you did. He probably cheered “U.S.A.!! U.S.A!!” at the television during the Olympics like I did. He probably looked at the flag and the anthem as sacred, too, and was probably shocked when he first witnessed a flag burning. And because I am inclined to see him as more like me—just like most everyone in the world—than different, I have to believe it took some serious soul-searching, lots of inner turmoil, and finally some real bravery to take this bold action. That much I can definitely respect. I also figured out something important: that I can separate the fact that I respect him for his convictions from the entirely different issue of whether I think the final display of his convictions—sitting for the anthem—was a wise or foolish choice.
I also look at the flip-side of the argument that he has no grounds to sit out the anthem because he has made millions of dollars by living in this great country. The flip-side is that he actually has a lot to lose by making this statement. Endorsement dollars, potential job opportunities, fans, relationships. He didn’t ask any teammates to join his protest because he immediately felt the public backlash and didn’t want to subject them to it, too. But he was willing to kneel for the anthem for this week’s game, too. With all that he had to lose, he did it anyway to keep getting his message out there. I can appreciate that kind of courage.
Finally, he didn’t seem to be pulling this as some immediate reaction to an incident that happened to him. As far as we know, he was not recently a victim of police violence or profiling. So, it wasn’t obviously a personal thing. He has previously been outspoken on social media about civil rights issues. This is all just to say that I give some credence to the idea that he was actually using his large public voice to speak for the voiceless. He was taking a stand for others who had less power to stand for themselves. That, all by itself, is admirable to me.
In the end, I still can’t say for sure whether Colin Kaepernick sitting out the anthem is “right” or not. I definitely think the cause he is speaking up for is a worthy one, but I don’t know if sitting out the anthem succeeded in bringing enough of the right kind of attention to the cause or not. The issue of him sitting clearly blew up in the media, but did the issue of racism and police violence against people of color blow up as well? Are people talking seriously about that now, too? I hope they are, but I am not sure. I think the jury is still out and waiting for time to tell us if the protest will be successful.
So, would I do it? Would I sit or kneel for the anthem? I never have before. I like to think that I am quite aware of and sensitive to the way our country and our culture has systematically failed large groups of people, including the ones Kaepernick is standing up for. America has a history of deep, dark injustice that has not been well addressed and thus continues to be a cancer on us all. Those things are worth a protest. But America—and by extension, the flag that stands for it—is also about ideals. There are lofty philosophies—freedom, equality, justice, and more—that our nation strives to be a model of. The flag symbolizes those ideals and also the people who fought and died to give the rest of us the chance to keep striving for them. In my mind, of course I know we haven’t lived up to those ideals. Societally, we fail regularly and miserably at that. I get that, and I can see why Colin Kaepernick wants to remind us that we need to do better. But I also understand how, at least for me, it is important to stand for a couple of minutes sometimes and listen to a song that reminds me of the ideals that we all so desperately need to keep striving for.
How about you? How do you feel about the idea of someone sitting out the national anthem in protest of America’s shortcomings? Open up your journal and see if you can flesh out the complexities of this very polarizing issue. First, what is your initial, gut reaction to hearing about this protest against the flag or the anthem? Is it a strong feeling, or just mild? On a scale of one to ten, how patriotic would you say you are? Do you think that patriotism dictates the severity of your reaction to this issue? Is Kaepernick’s cause—racial injustice and police violence against people of color—important enough to tread into such a volatile (though peaceful) form of protest? Has it so far succeeded in getting you and those around you to think about or discuss these issues? In your sphere, has the racial injustice discussion been overshadowed by the anthem/flag discussion? Do you agree with me that it required courage and conviction to protest in this way? Can you respect and admire those qualities in him even if you disagree with his actions? Would you sit out the anthem for this cause? Is there anything our country could do—e.g. enter into an unjust war—that could make you sit out the anthem or desecrate a flag? Should we honor our anthem and flag because of the ideals that we would like the country to stand for—and the people who fought for those ideals–or because of how the country actually is? Should the flag simply be out of bounds when it comes to protests, i.e. should Americans salute it no matter what is happening here or what types of conflicts the country is participating in? Leave me a reply and let me know: What do we owe to our flag and our anthem?
Be your best today,
P.S. If this helped you to consider this difficult topic in a new light, please pass it on. Let’s spread the empathy around! Bless you.