Revisiting Colin Kaepernick
It has almost been a year since I wrote about the then-49ers quarterback, who controversially chose not to stand during the National Anthem last season. For what it’s worth, I supported both his constitutional right to protest as well as what he was protesting: that America oppresses people of color, and as an institution that needs to change.
Kaepernick used his platform as a starting quarterback in the NFL to shed light on an ongoing problem in the United States. And, naturally, he received blowback from virtually every side. Former players, now in the media, argued that he was a distraction in the locker room. (He wasn’t.) Everyday people criticized that he was somehow disrespecting the flag, or the military. (Which he also wasn’t.)
America is not merely a tribe of people, and it cannot be represented simply by a flag. Every other country in the modern world has both of those. Instead, America is an idea. It seems now more than ever that people have forgotten that.
The idea was pretty simple: it was to deny, or reject, the very nature of human beings. Rather than being tribal, walling ourselves off from the rest of the world, America was and is a nation of immigrants. It welcomes everyone, from everywhere. Rather than a typical top-down power structure, the idea was that the people have all the authority. This is where the First Amendment came from. It literally gives anyone the right to protest, or speak freely, without the threat of being killed or imprisoned for voicing their opinions.
This is why most people got Colin Kaepernick’s protest all wrong. He was not protesting America, or the flag; he protested the treatment of unarmed black people being shot by police. Kneeling during the National Anthem was just his means of drawing attention to the issue.
To reward Kaepernick’s courage in standing up for what he believed in — or I guess I should say kneeling — he has been blackballed from playing in the NFL. Owners want absolutely nothing to do with him, and not for football reasons. In 2016 he ranked 23rd in Total QBR, better than 9 other starting quarterbacks. And that doesn’t take into account that every NFL team has a backup, and many carry three on the 53-man roster. That’s something like 75 NFL jobs for quarterbacks on any given Sunday.
In short: Colin is more than qualified to have one of those jobs.
But NFL owners — mostly old, almost all white — want to send a message. Part of the message is to Kaepernick, showing him what he gets for bringing attention to a real issue.
But much worse, the owners are deliberately threatening every other player in the league. They want to punish Colin Kaepernick, sure. But what they really want is to prevent any player from doing the same thing. Their objective is to silence the true agents of change.
The Owners Can’t Win This Fight
The NFL Preseason started a couple weeks ago, and already the Seahawks’ Michael Bennet and the Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch have sat during the National Anthem.
The real bombshell: the other night Philadelphia’s Chris Long — a white guy — put his arm around cornerback Malcom Jenkins while Jenkins raised his fist during the song. Long had this to say after the game:
“I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Why do athletes get involved in the national anthem protests?’ I’ve said before that I’ll never kneel for an anthem because the flag means something different for everybody in this country, but I support my peers. If you don’t see why you need allies for people that are fighting for equality right now, I don’t think you’ll ever see it.
“Malcolm is a leader and I’m here to show support as a white athlete.”
The owners backed themselves into a corner. They believed they were extinguishing the problem by blackballing one guy. What has happened, in effect, is they have only dumped gasoline on the fire.
Privately, I sort of believed Kaepernick’s protest would ultimately have to be legitimized by a white player — or many white players — because it’s so easy for the Fox News’s of the world to single out black athletes and continue telling their viewers that there is no such thing as racism in America. When a white player takes the plunge, that’s when you know this isn’t just some petty protest.
Chris Long deserves a ton of credit for showing solidarity with Malcom Jenkins, just as Michael Bennet and Marshawn Lynch deserve credit for being on the front lines.
I think the best part of multiple players protesting is how mainstream the movement is becoming. When it was only Colin Kaepernick, the media (and fans) could focus all of their attention on him and only him. When it’s many players, you can’t single any one of them out. Detractors can’t maintain their outrage when they have to divvy it up.
Kaepernick is the hero of this story. He had the courage to be the first, and he knew it wasn’t going to be an easy road.
History is going to look back on him with extreme favor. The Smithsonian already knows this. While people are generally resistant to change, progress stops for no one. 150 years ago the progress was freeing slaves. 50 years ago the progress was the Civil Rights Movement. That struggle continues to this day.
Where we go from here
One of the shittiest parts of being alive in 2017 is how seemingly every topic has become politicized. People can’t say they support Black Lives Matter without being accused of hating cops. People can’t say they support Blue Lives Matter without being accused of being racist.
My opinion is what I found the most reasonable outcome: I’m against police brutality the same way I am against brutality against police.
However, if individuals can’t see that black people are disproportionately the victims of police brutality, then I don’t know what else they need to see. There’s a certain segment of the population — maybe as much as 20-25 percent — that considers everything they disagree with as “Fake News.” And this article will go nowhere in trying to convince them.
Colin Kaepernick is paying for the sin of starting this movement, but he will also reap the most benefits in the eyes of history. That might not be the consolation prize Kaepernick was looking for right now, especially assuming he still wants to play football, and can’t. But over the longterm, the futures (if this was the stock market), he will go down as one of the only athletes of his time who truly put his money where his mouth was and spoke truth to power.
The owners can’t blackball everybody. Michael Bennet, Marshawn Lynch, and Malcom Jenkins are all solid football players. They aren’t getting released. Chris Long is a solid football player. He isn’t getting released. Tack on another dozen guys around the league, and then another dozen after them and so on, and the owners’ hands will be tied.
Like I said before, the owners boxed themselves in. Because from here they have only two choices: (1) either release these guys and show the world they are against the First Amendment and/or equality in general, or (2) let all the protesters continue to play which, in turn, admits they were wrong and Kaepernick was right.
If they weren’t already billionaires, I might feel sorry for the owners. But then you consider that basically the only way to become a billionaire is by exploiting the labor of the working class, then I suppose I wouldn’t feel sorry for them, anyway. Oh well.
This isn’t just a race issue to me. This is a class issue. People oftentimes shit on professional athletes for making so much money, but at the end of the day they are still the labor. While the best players make $20 million per year or more, the owners are making billions in profits. In blackballing Kaepernick, they are just flexing some muscle. This is what happens at the top when the status quo changes.
So for players to band together on this issue, it’s really a big Fuck You to the wealthy owners who try again and again to put them in their place. When people come together and realize the fight isn’t amongst each other, but against those at the very top, anything can get accomplished. I truly believe that.
It is not un-American to criticize America. Kaepernick’s protest was to help make America better for everyone, which might just be the most patriotic thing a person can do.
As always, our fight is not against the labor, or the working class. They try to divide us up by skin color, sexual orientation, and religion, but it’s only because if people ever understood that none of that shit really matters, they would turn their attention to the very top. The people who benefit most from keeping stunted the status quo.