Let me first be clear on where I am coming from. I am a white male, from a middle class family, whose heritage is largely colonial English. My privilege and my place in society have never been anything other than comfortable and safe. There is little in life that I have wanted and not received. Not once have I been scared of the police, felt discriminated against by an employer, or been called a racial epithet. Currently I am without a paying job, and yet there is little risk of me not having a home, not being cared for, not being provided for. I am lucky beyond measure. These words below do not come from a place of racial experience, but rather empathy. Acknowledging that bias allows you, as the reader, to have no reservations about where my stance originates, or how it was informed.
Colin Kaepernick has gone through a number of football swings in his still brief career with the San Francisco 49ers. He was a second round draft pick. He was a promising backup that took the starting job from a former number one overall pick. He was close to being a Super Bowl winning quarterback. He endured great success early in his career, and was rewarded with a huge contract. Since then he has been the underachiever, often times rarely playing, but still getting paid nonetheless. Coming into this season there was little fanfare around Kaepernick. The 49ers had a new coach in Chip Kelly that was hogging much of the spotlight. The conversation around the team was about largely about whether they would finish third or fourth in their division, and the questions surrounding Kaepernick himself were whether he could become even a shadow of his former self. Then he sat.
The NFL dominates the sports news cycle in this country. Coverage of the behemoth is broken down into two increasingly equal parts: football the sport, and football the brand. Football the sport is your normal coverage that encapsulates games, game analysis, highlights, trades, trade rumors, injury news, the combine, the draft, mini camps, training camps, OTAs, etc. Football the brand encapsulates all the rest: the promotion of the NFL’s “Play 60” initiative, the Hall of Fame, the owners meetings, the marketing, the advertisements, and increasingly the off the field player behavior that the PR team is always ready to address or ignore. That behavior has come to dominate the brand half of the cycle: DUIs, domestic violence, gun charges, drug arrests, manslaughter, reckless driving, the list goes on and on. It has become such a frequent part of the brand, that it often becomes just another talking point to milk for ratings. The NFL brass may not like it, but boy does it help pay for ad time at ESPN. The “Worldwide Leader” would never say publicly that they enjoy Johnny Manziel getting caught wasted in Vegas, but you can bet behind closed doors they are loving every minute of it. Controversy drives ratings, and suddenly we have a controversy that is peaceful, non-violent, and non-criminal. This is the perfect opportunity to have both ratings and rational thought. There’s no way this player could get criticized more than child abusers, right? Wrong.
Not standing for the flag, or the national anthem, has nothing to do with the military. It certainly can, but to think that they have to be mutually inclusive, is to be blindly jingoistic. Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II. I could not be more proud of the sacrifice they made. I applaud and respect those who choose and chose to enter the armed forces. My best friend from high school joined the army, and I am proud of him. The fact is, my saying that is as much creating a straw man to reinforce my argument, as the other side is doing to tear down Kaepernick’s. Whether you have family or friends in the military, or if you fought yourself, our armed forces can claim no more ownership of our anthem and our flag than a janitor at a highschool, or a manager at a bank. That’s the point of this country. We are supposed to all be equal. Because of that, you can protest the symbols of our country for any cause you wish. That’s pretty damn awesome.
With that being said, let’s pretend for a second that Kaepernick is protesting the military (he isn’t, just to be extra, overly clear). Recently it came to light that much of the pomp and circumstance that fans and players experience before games, like the giant flag over the field, or the military flyovers, were largely paid marketing schemes between pro teams and the armed forces. Combine that with the fact that you can rarely sit through a televised football game without seeing multiple ads for the marines, army, and navy, and it makes you think that maybe this isn’t really as much about respecting our troops as it is about furthering our military industrial complex. Too often have I both experienced and seen army recruiters manipulate, and try to manipulate, young men and women into joining up: promises of a better life, of a future education, of a moral high ground. Combine all that with the fact that we as a country don’t treat veterans very well, and I would argue that protesting the actions of the military as an institution is actually supporting our troops more than any nationalistic pregame football ritual. And yet, again, Kaepernick isn’t sitting to dishonor the military. It has nothing to do with the military. Period.
The real issue Kaepernick is protesting is the treatment of black people in this country, with an emphasis on police brutality. Throughout the country police unions and organizations have come out and criticized him. The usual talking points are a lack of respect, or of education, or of being ungrateful. He is privileged (with fame and money), so he must be a hypocrite.
The logical hoops that one must jump through to get to that conclusion are astounding. Sure, part of this is about money, but the fact is he is still a black man in an industry that is dominated by rich, old white men. If you don’t believe me, go look at the demographics of the NFL ownership. This is an institution that had to instate a rule, The Rooney Rule, to make sure black candidates were interviewed for head coaching positions. Guess what, despite that rule, there are still only four black head coaches in the league, even while the players are predominantly black. Furthermore, money does not buy racial equality. Nor does it buy equal respect. Serena Williams is one of the greatest tennis players of all time, and she is American. Maria Sharapova has been completely and utterly dominated by Williams in her career and yet Sharapova makes more money from endorsements in this country, and she isn’t even American! I won’t even start on Williams compared to her male counterparts.
But wait, you are still talking about money and the problems of famous, privileged black athletes, they don’t have to deal with everyday bias. Wrong. Take Doug Glanville, a great baseball player, and currently an analyst for ESPN, he couldn’t get a taxi because he is black. James Blake, retired tennis player, was wrongly tackled by police and concerned for his safety because of his skin color. That’s the thing, money doesn’t nullify racism or earn societal privilege. Who knows how many Glanville’s deal with that everyday and don’t have the platform to speak, and we know how many Blake’s all too often end in tragedy: Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and more. No one is saying that all cops are racist, or all cop shootings are racially motivated. No one is saying all cabbies avoid black people on the street, but where there is smoke there is fire, and right now the smoke is suffocating.
The response to Kaepernick has been concerning, not because you have to support his decision, or because you have to agree with my stance, but because much of the discussion has been about his specific action rather than the very real reasons he chose to take that action. I won’t sit here and tell you you have to agree with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, though I personally do. And I won’t tell you that you have to agree with Kaepernick and sit for the national anthem, I probably won’t. However, I would ask you to please empathize and think about the protest he is making. The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one. Ignore the anthem, ignore him sitting, and please try to recognize the problem.