In our sports-obsessed culture, when a professional athlete declines to stand for the National Anthem and says it is because he is protesting race relations and police brutality, it’s news. In this instance, Colin Kaepernick’s actions have provoked some fans to burn his San Francisco 49ers jersey and generated reactions from all points on the political spectrum.
I don’t get the jersey-burning. Of course, under the First Amendment, Kaepernick has a right to protest and advocate for his position on important issues of the day, period. We all do. Although some people increasingly seem hell-bent on punishing and eventually criminalizing free speech, through speech codes and “safe zones” and other contrivances designed to protect our delicate sensibilities from unpopular views — and, of course, quash the expression of those views in the first place — every American still has a right to peacefully express their views on topics like racism. Kaepernick’s actions aren’t unAmerican; they’re quintessentially American.
And anybody who thinks sports figures should just take their big salaries and keep their mouths shut is kidding himself, too. Sports have been politicized for as long as I can remember, since at least the 1968 Olympics when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists and bowed their heads during the playing of the National Anthem. And the NFL itself has become increasingly involved in public issues, with events like breast cancer awareness weeks where the players wear garish pink towels and socks. Breast cancer is a pretty safe public issue, but it’s a public issue nevertheless. To the extent there ever was a line between sports and the real world, that line has long since been erased and crossed.
Kaepernick’s gesture shows the power of free speech — which is why the founding fathers were so interested in protecting it. One player sits during the National Anthem, and it provokes a firestorm. Kaepernick obviously picked the National Anthem because he knows that every sports event starts with its playing and that it is a source of pride to Americans. Showing disrespect for the Anthem is an effective way of drawing attention to your cause, just like burning a flag was during the campus protests in the 1960s.
Of course, we can wonder whether Kaepernick will just sit during the Anthem, or will go beyond exercising his free speech rights to actually do something to promote better race relations or address police actions. The San Francisco police have invited him to come to the police academy to open lines of communication and learn about the challenges facing the thin blue line. I hope he accepts that invitation, and uses the interest his one-man protest has generated to increase understanding and help improve things. Sitting is one thing, taking meaningful action is quite another.