Few things in this country arouse passionate love, fury or patriotism on a mass scale like the American flag does.
One expert told me years ago that our flag is the closest thing this country has to a national religion, and Americans worship it at least as much as their other national religions of Major League Baseball, NFL football and the NBA. It’s no accident that people filling stadiums and arenas reverently remove their hats, put their hands over their hearts and face Old Glory when the national anthem is played opening games. They do it for the sacrifices of people in the military, veterans and even those who have served the Union in elected offices.
So it should come as no surprise that many people have reacted over-the-top negatively to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal for about two weeks to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” in some preseason National Football League games. Kaepernick cites U.S. oppression of African Americans and other people of color for his action.
He’s right but he’s going against the blending of America’s religions. At first Kaepernick sat when everyone else was standing, and then, last week he knelt along with teammate Eric Reid.
What he is doing isn’t unAmerican. It’s his way of focusing needed attention on racial injustice in this country not unlike the Black Lives Matter movement. Kaepernick is a rarity as a black quarterback in the NFL, which adds to the attention he brings to the problem of racism in America.
President Barack Obama was right to explain on Monday at a news conference wrapping up an international economic summit in Asia that Kaepernick was like some professional athletes in the past who have exercised their constitutional right of free speech. They have come out on a social concern. “If nothing else, what he's done is he's generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about,” Obama said.
Keep in mind, though, that free speech is rarely free.
Some athletes jumping into the social arena haven’t been professional ballplayers, but they still exercised their power to force change. Black University of Missouri-Columbia football players threatened a boycott of games last year in support graduate student Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike over unaddressed racial problems on campus. That followed the police shooting on Aug. 9, 2014, of 18-year-old African American Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the resulting unrest and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
They are all tied together. The MU football players’ backing was enough to force the resignation of the MU system president and Columbia campus chancellor and set in motion major changes focused on inclusiveness.
On Sunday, U.S. Women’s National Team soccer star Megan Rapinoe took a knee when the national anthem was played at the start of a match between her Seattle Reign and the Chicago Red Stars. It was her way of supporting Kaepernick. “Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” Rapinoe said.
The stand being taken by that these professional athletes is huge because they’re up against the powerful forces of sports, the flag, the national anthem and our unwavering public decorum when those things mix.
Two questions stand out: Now that they have started this practice of not standing (and or kneeling) do they plan to continue it during every game? If they stop, does that mean they have given up?
They have to be prepared to be in this for the long game.
Racism and homophobia are deeply rooted in the history of this country and are unlikely to go away any time soon. Kaepernick, Rapinoe, Reid and others bring badly needed attention to these all-too-American problems.
The athletes in this way help serve as the conscience of the country on such social matters, pushing America to be better.
It’s no different from Jackie Robinson integrating Major League Baseball in 1947 and enduring years of withering racial slurs. Muhammad Ali got the country’s attention in 1967 when he refused to be drafted in the Army during the Vietnam War, saying he was a conscientious objector. It took a 1971 Supreme Court ruling to put him on the right side of history, enabling him to fight his way to becoming the heavy weight champion again.
Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos caught hell when they stood on the medals platform at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists in a black power salute during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The hell and outrage people have expressed up to now will likely pale in what’s to come for Kaepernick, Papinoe, Reid and others. I only hope that the drive and discipline they have as athletes will carry them through the protests they’ve started, that more professional athletes join them, that Americans honestly look at themselves because of the athletes’ actions and the country starts to change.