Colin Kaepernick: Not the Last, but Not the First

Colin Kaepernick was known for a lot of impressive accomplishments before this NFL season. He was probably the best collegiate football player ever at the University of Nevada, he was selected in both the MLB and NFL drafts and he led the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl as a rookie. Yet, his most impressive action may be the simple act of kneeling during the U.S. national anthem. Whether you support or condemn his actions, his kneeling did raise a greater awareness about the Black struggle, catalyzing other athletes around the country to join him in his protest. 

Will people look back on his actions years from now and think that he made a difference, or is he doomed to be remembered as nothing more than a lost attention-seeker?  

Before judging Kaepernick's actions, be aware that this is neither a one-man uprising nor is it novel for an athlete to protest racial injustices. The social activism of athletes in the 60s and 70s is well documented and does not suffer from nearly as much criticism as current efforts. But, Kaepernick did not break a 40-year lull. 

Last NFL season, five St. Louis Rams players came out on the field with their hands up with a message implying the “don’t shoot” mantra following the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. LeBron James, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and other NBA players wore black shirts inscribed with “I can’t breathe” after the death of Eric Garner. James also displayed a powerful message, along with other players on the Miami Heat, by pulling his warm-up hood over his head following the death of Trayvon Martin. 

And now, Kaepernick is not alone. Current NFL players are also kneeling or putting their fist up during the national anthem, just like Tommie Smith and John Carlos did at the 1968 Olympics. This list includes Arian Foster, Jelani Jenkins, Michael Thomas, Kenny Stills Brandon Marshall, Eric Reid, Jeremy Lane, Marcus Peters and Duane Brown, among others. A number of high school teams have also decided to demonstrate. 

Others have protested in different ways. Seattle Seahawks players Richard Sherman and Doug Baldwin refused to answer questions from the media and took their interview time to speak out on social injustices and proposed solutions. Kaepernick is a part of a movement among athletes, which derives from an even bigger movement within our society-at-large.

Some politicians and talking heads have attacked political correctness in the past few years, responding to discourse on college campuses and on immigration in the United States. By contrast, free speech has been upheld as an imperative. There is a double-standard with the critics of the recent wave of athlete protesters; the actions of Kaepernick, Foster, Stills and others are clearly strong instances of free speech. And, applying one interpretation of political correctness—speaking or acting in a way to avoid offense—their actions are not necessarily “politically correct.”

Following this logic, why are these players not supported by the politicians and pundits that have attacked political correctness and upheld free speech? Where are they now? Is it okay to throw political correctness out the window to denigrate Muslim Americans as well as to enact stop-and-frisk on Black and Latinx people, but as soon as someone offends the police or the racial order of this country, it is suddenly deemed unreasonable to do so? Granted, the sacrifice of American soldiers demands respect and should be kept out of this debate, but the flag and the national anthem represent the entirety of the country: the good, like brave patriotism, and the bad, like institutional racism.

NFL players and other athletes currently protesting do not want to kneel down during the playing of their national anthem; they want social injustices to be addressed. If there is one sticking point in this debate, it is the focus on the flag and the anthem as sacrosanct to all Americans. IPutting aside the anthem’s creation during a period when the United States enslaved Black people, the anthem and the flag mean different things to different Americans and everyone should be entitled to their own individual relationship with them.   

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