As the whole world knows, San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to stay seated during the national anthem prior to a preseason game Friday night.

Afterward, he said the following to the NFL Network to explain his actions:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “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.”

His team subsequently issued its own statement:

“The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”

A few comments (I apologize in advance for their disjointed nature):

1)there has been a torrent of reaction on social media and elsewhere. That reaction has included a heaping helping of racist invective and other forms of idiocy as well as more measured criticisms alongside plenty of support for Kap. As Ian O’Connor noted in his ESPN column yesterday about the controversy, Kaepernick’s actions have yet again revealed a deep fault line in our society:

An unscientific survey of Twitter reaction from players, fans and observers offered more evidence that the country is divided, perhaps still broken, along racial lines. This emerged as the one undisputed truth about a story that will have legs as long as the quarterback doesn’t use his during the pregame anthem.

To repeat a point I’ve made before, there has been a shift in sports media discourse in recent years toward more critical and previously marginal perspectives. Part of that is just the receding of 9/11, the Iraq war and the Bush years. Part of that is due to a salutary increase in smart, critical voices in sports media. Many conservatives believe that sports media is now overwhelmingly left wing. That’s wrong. But a decade ago, Kaepernick would have found few high profile allies. Today, he has lots. So, despite all the crap he’s taken, the playing field on issues of patriotism, the military and the flag is more level than it was a few years ago.

2)let’s try to dispense quickly with some of the sillier complaints about what Kap did and how he explained it:

  • a surprising number of commentators – I’m not talking about the twitterati, but people with substantial real estate in the sports landscape – have said that Kap can’t be right because we’ve had a black president for eight years. This sort of argument fits nicely with Greg Howard’s recent essay in the New York Times – that the easiest way to eliminate racism is to redefine it. I trust most readers will understand how this argument checks almost every logical fallacy box in the book.
  • there’s been a strong current of America-love-it-or-leave-it in many of the attacks. In one variant, Kap is an ingrate. He’s making $19 million a year, so what does he have to complain about? (A corrollary: how could America be a bad place for black people if a few hundred black pro athletes are getting rich?) Kap made quite clear Friday night that he’s not speaking specifically to his own life circumstances. He’s lamenting a larger societal problem. The correlation between those now criticizing Kaepernick and those who think athletes are overpaid, selfish pricks is probably close to 100%. So, naturally, they’ll try – convoluted though the effort is – to reduce Kaepernick’s statements to the kind of selfishishness that fits their view of athletes generally. But it doesn’t actually hold up here. Former QB and current ESPN commentator Matt Hasselback said this weekend that continuing to refuse to stand for the anthem was the surest way to ensure Kaepernick doesn’t win back his starting job. That may be true. But if that’s so, then he’s potentially forfeiting a lot of future earnings (and endorsements). Say what you will, but that’s a sacrifice that most people – including very rich people – are not willing to make.
  • Another variant – many have argued that if America is such a terrible place, maybe Kaepernick ought to forfeit all the money he makes since it must be, ipso fact, blood money. I am not aware of the constitutional provision that requires individuals to forego their paychecks in order to exercise their rights. Apparently, though, many of his critics believe it exists. In an interview Saturday with NFL Player’s Association leader DeMaurice Smith, Dave Zirin noted that episodes like this one reveal a longstanding presumption among many sports fans and commentators: that athletes aren’t workers who *earn* their paychecks. Instead, they owe their stations in life solely to the good fortune that sports fans have bestowed upon them. That’s wrong, of course. Pro athletes make the money they do because they are extraordinarily highly skilled in what happens to be an exceptionally competitive labor market in a highly lucrative industry. That’s what many people call the “free market.” If you don’t like it, maybe you should consider leaving the country.
  • there have been lots of invocations of Muhammad Ali this weekend by those critical of Kaepernick. This speaks directly to the depressingly Disneyfied version of Ali that emerged in recent decades. Just as supreme cynics have invoked Martin Luther King, Jr. as an anodyne advocate for a kumbaya version of the civil rights movement, as opposed to the provocative and much-maligned critic of America that he was, so too has Ali’s bitter and trenchant criticisms of America and its martial institutions been largely whitewashed. Kaepernick is 28 years old. When Ali was his age, he was in the midst of a three year banishment for boxing because he’d been convicted of draft evasion. Indulging myself a little game of historical teleportation, there is little doubt that the vast majority of those who now invoke Ali to criticize Kap would have *hated* the actual Ali of the 1960s and 1970s.

That doesn’t exhaust the list of bad arguments. But those have been prominent.

3)one important issue here, which the sports world has witnessed before, is the meaning of the national anthem (and God Bless America). Smith and Carlos’ protest in 1968 is the urtext sports protest moment.

In more recent years, Manhattanville’s Toni Smith (2002-03), Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (1996) and Carlos Delgado (2004) previously made well-documented (and largely criticized) gestures of defiance against the flag, anthem and God Bless America respectively. Those actions confronted, among other things, the deeply entrenched ritual of patriotic affirmation that has become so ingrained in our sports culture.

Many people pointed out this weekend that it’s something of an oddity that the anthem is played before every sporting event in the United States. The same is not typically true of other forms of public entertainment, including plays and concerts. It’s also far from a universal tradition. Not all national leagues play their country’s anthems before regular contests.  The Star Spangled Banner first became a regular feature at baseball games during World War I and the tradition caught on, at least for World Series and other significant games in subsequent years. Congress anointed Francis Scott Key’s battle song the national anthem in 1931. But it wasn’t until World War II that it was sung routinely prior to all regular season games.

Does that mean Americans were less patriotic 75 years ago? Hardly. But the centrality of the ritual to patriotism and military worshipfulness in sporting culture has surged since 9/11. At least in my memory, after that date PA announcers began regularly adding a variant on the following preface when they asked everyone in attendance to rise to honor America: “and the men and women in uniform who defend our freedoms around the globe.”

That preface originally echoed the absurdity of Bush administration talking points for justifying the US invasion of Iraq which was, among other things, that we keep the terrorists away from our shores by fighting them “over there.” (as a friendly reminder, Iraq was never a haven for terrorists until *after* the US invasion).

In other words, the necessary premise of the prefatory comments that one now routinely hears at sporting events is that we would be living under the yoke of foreign tyranny were it not for our long-running occupation of Afghanistan, our years-long invasion and occupation of Iraq and myriad other overseas interventions.

As a statement about foreign policy, or how the world works more generally, this is simple nonsense. But it’s the tissue-thin reed on which hangs the newly amped up exhortations for singing the national anthem – that we only have the privilege of singing it because of the military.  Indeed, much of the criticism directed at Kaepernick this weekend homed in on the way in which he not only disrespected the flag but also our troops, whose very sacrifices are supposed to have made possible Kap’s protest. That argument is ludicrous for two reasons: first, because it actually intimates, when it’s not outright stated, that because people are dying for Kap’s rights, he is wrong to exercise them. Second, because the claim that Kap’s rights only exist because of what our troops are doing elsewhere in the world is also a sick joke, a confession of supreme ignorance about our constitution and our history.

We’re clearly in the midst of a generational revival of sorts. The long-noted complacency and reticence of athletes to speak out on political matters is dissipating (that’s always been a somewhat selective reading of the historical record, focused primarily on black athletes, who have historically been more apt to take high-profile and controversial political stances than have white athletes, and ignoring the many athletes who have professed their faiths in public ways that also have clear political meaning). In the face of the persistent one-sidedness of the use of the term political correctness (which frequently boils down to the claim that only white people -especially men – are being told they can’t express their honest opinions without being condemned), Kaepernick’s sitting stand Friday night and the reaction to it is a good reminder that there is still hell to be paid for daring to take on cherished American symbols.

Below: Zirin’s discussion with DeMaurice Smith…

Charles Modiano has an incisive piece in the Daily News today. It includes a further elaboration from Kaepernick – that his protest wasn’t aimed at the military at all, but rather the fact that, all too frequently, police kill unarmed black men without facing punishment:

“I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country.”

And then, Kaepernick explained the tragic hypocrisy:

“This country isn’t holding up their end of the bargain… men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.”




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