San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has created somewhat of a firestorm by refusing to stand during the playing of the national anthem before the team’s exhibition games. The black quarterback is attempting to draw attention to the poor state of race relations in the nation as well as the treatment of black Americans by law enforcement. Kaepernick is making common cause with the Black Lives Matter movement during a period in which extreme opinions of nationalism, and especially white nationalism, are becoming increasingly prevalent in political debate dominated by the rhetoric of Donald Trump.
Just as during the Vietnam War, dissenters, such as Kaepernick, are greeted with the simplistic refrain of love it or leave it. There is no room for free speech or debate in a nationalistic environment that unquestionably embraces American exceptionalism.
Just as during the Vietnam War, dissenters, such as Kaepernick, are greeted with the simplistic refrain of love it or leave it. There is no room for free speech or debate in a nationalistic environment that unquestionably embraces American exceptionalism. Instead, it may be argued that Kaepernick is assuming the role of a patriot rather than a nationalist.
In taking his citizenship seriously, the athlete asks whether in its treatment of black Americans the nation is living up to its principles as articulated in such founding documents as the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. In Kaepernick’s opinion and the experience of many black Americans, the United States continues to fall short of its promise in the treatment of minorities, and Kaepernick should be congratulated rather than censured for calling our attention to the sorry state of race relations.
Some critics object that Kaepernick is introducing politics into the neutral or escapist venue of American sport. Nothing could be further from the truth! Playing of the national anthem before games is often accompanied by flyovers from military aircraft and the honoring of military personnel, projecting support of U.S. bases and militarism abroad. Major League Baseball even employed the playing of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” to make unsubstantiated connections between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.
In placing such an emphasis upon militarism in pregame rituals, the popular perception becomes that in honoring the flag we are paying tribute to the veterans and soldiers who have sacrificed so much for that symbol. In fact, by refusing to cooperate with these nationalistic rituals, an athlete such as Kaepernick is perceived as dishonoring the troops. After the massive protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s, the government has carefully equated honoring the troops with supporting the war.
It is true that American soldiers, representing only a small percentage of the population, have made tremendous personal sacrifices in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. They are touted as protecting the American way of life. But is this way of life simply about consumerism and security, or should it be about the principles upon which the nation was founded? If the soldiers are fighting to uphold such basic concepts of liberty as free speech then the test of this liberty is not a consensus upon which almost everyone agrees, but rather controversial speech that challenges basic assumptions and encourages thought. If we do not enjoy the right of expressing difficult opinions then there is no freedom of speech, and we have sacrificed our basic principles.
Kaepernick’s actions call attention to the real vitality of a democracy in a way that repeating pledges and mouthing the words of an anthem rarely accomplish. Kaepernick draws our attention to the complexities of American history that include territorial expansion at the expense of Native Americans and Mexico, discrimination against women and the LGBTQ community, exploitation of the working class, imperialism and the Vietnam War, and slavery followed by Jim Crow and the legacy of racism. These issues have been by no means resolved, but Kaepernick’s protest reminds us that these questions are only addressed by dissenters who challenge policies that do not live up to the principles espoused by the United States.
Kaepernick’s actions are not unprecedented in the arena of sports, although athletes afraid of losing lucrative contracts and endorsements are reluctant to speak up. Refusing to take a stand against the re-election of race-baiting Jesse Helms in North Carolina, Michael Jordan famously remarked that Republicans also buy sneakers. Yet others have spoken up such as Muhammad Ali resisting the draft, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their clinched fists in black power salutes during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Carlos Delgado of the Toronto Blue Jays not coming out of the dugout during the playing of “God Bless America,” and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (formerly Chris Jackson) of the Denver Nuggets refusing to stand during the national anthem. All of these athletes suffered repercussions for their protests from public censures to suspensions. The dilemma of the black athlete was perhaps best expressed by the iconic Jackie Robinson in his memoir I Never Had It Made. Although he failed to act on his feelings, Robinson observed that his experience with racism in America made it difficult for him to stand at attention during playing of the national anthem.
Colin Kaepernick’s symbolic protest is a peaceful action that seeks to encourage a much needed national dialogue on the subject of race. Perhaps the fact that he was adopted and raised by a white family in suburban California has provided Kaepernick with even greater insight into white privilege in this country. While denounced by many on social media for being ungrateful to his adoptive family and the nation, many teammates, the 49ers management, and the National Football League have asserted that while they may disagree with Kaepernick’s actions, he is exercising his right of free speech and should not be disciplined by the league or team.
On the other hand, Kaepernick may be released by the 49ers, and it will be difficult to ascertain whether such a decision is due to unfavorable fan reaction to Kaepernick’s dissent or the decline in his performance as the quarterback was benched last season after leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012. Thus, Kaepernick demonstrated courage to protest at a time when his career is vulnerable; perhaps making it easier for the team to release him and other clubs not to sign him.
Kaepernick’s actions also raise another troubling question about security at athletic contests. His protest drew the ire of many fans, but Kaepernick was surrounded by teammates and security. What protection do the average fans have if they want to join Kaepernick in symbolic dissent.
During baseball games following the invasion of Iraq, I was uncomfortable rising during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America.” Yet, I conformed to expectations; afraid of how those around me might physically respond to any type of protest and suspicious of whether I could depend upon the aid of security personnel. Such fears do not bode well for democracy whether a spectator at an athletic contest, a student forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or a quarterback drawing attention to the nation’s troubled race relations.
Rather than the mindless rhetoric and rote behavior of nationalism, we need a strong dose of patriotic discourse.