With any big news story, there really are more questions than answers. Has Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem before NFL games enlightened the public about racial inequities in America? Or has it merely empowered the scribes and Pharisees—talking heads and comportment police—to lecture over what constitutes an appropriate protest?
Has Kaepernick sparked a debate about police treatment of minorities, which is his stated intention? Or has he fueled an argument about whether he, as a $19-million-a-year backup quarterback, is in any position to speak for the oppressed?
By not participating in what his critics consider an act of patriotism, is he disrespecting American military troops and those who serve the country? Or he is reinforcing what the anthem and flag stand for—the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment?
Should we be talking about this?
For the animated adult cartoon “South Park,” to which nothing is off limits, assumptions of uncompromising certainties in the Kaepernick case are skewered by its satiric rewriting of the Star-Spangled Banner’s lyrics:
Colin Kaepernick is great.
Cops are pigs, cops are pigs.
Wait, someone just took my stuff, I need to call the cops.
Oh, no, I just said cops are pigs.
Who’s gonna help me get my stuff?
Why did I listen to Colin Kaepernick? He’s not even any good.
Oh, I just got all my stuff back.
Cops are pigs again, cops are pigs.
Colin Kaepernick is a good backup….
As a career sports journalist, I was struck by the thoughtful observations of SUNY-Oswego communications professor Brian Moritz, a former sportswriter, who mulled whether reports subsequent to Kaepernick’s first protest on Aug. 26 somehow are hijacking his original intent.
“If two of the most primary news values are conflict (aka disagreements) and deviance (something outside the norm),” Moritz wrote on his sportsmediaguy.com Web site, “then it’s natural for reporters to focus on people who disagree loudly with Kaepernick. Ambivalence is not a great news value, especially not if one or more players voice strong disapproval of Kaepernick’s actions. Those disapproving voices get amplified in the follow-up stories (because they fit the established news values), and I wonder how much that amplification inadvertently isolates Kaepernick and his position.
“The point,” Mortiz added, “is not whether Kaepernick is right or wrong. We’re grownups. We’re allowed to disagree. The point is whether the way we…cover a story effects public perception of the issues involved.”
Does it stray from Kaepernick’s message to know that a principal in Florida told students they would be ejected from sports events if they didn’t stand for the national anthem? Or that a Massachusetts high school football player was threatened with suspension if he mimicked Kaepernick? That presidential candidate Donald Trump invited Kaepernick to leave the country and Iowa congressman Steve King compared a player’s kneeling during the anthem akin to “activism that is sympathetic to ISIS”?
According to a report in the U.K.-based Telegraph, an Alabama preacher informed a high school football crowd, “If you don’t want to stand for the national anthem, you can line up over there by the fence and let our military personnel take a few shots at you.”
Perhaps it further inflames Kaepernick’s detractors that Wesley Morris, in a New York Times Magazine essay, pointed to the football establishment’s long history of seeking “to conflate itself with the military, making it easy to confuse players with troops and political protest with treason.” Morris argued that “modern patriotism has become Kabuki citizenship” through rituals that have turned national loyalty into “a matter of optics—of theater.”
A few other pros have joined Kaepernick’s no-standing stance during pre-game anthems. As the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times noted, the Supreme Court in 1943 established that citizens cannot be forced to pledge allegiance to the American flag or engage in other patriotic demonstrations, and a 1969 ruling reinforced the constitutional right to express political opinions as long as they don’t impose on “the rights of others.”
In the end, it does not appear that Kaepernick has endangered anyone, with the possible exception of himself. He “has placed his livelihood in peril in the service of his conscience,” contended Penn State professor Abraham Iqbal Khan in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette opinion piece, calling that “a risk that merits our attention.”
Meanwhile, it surely does no good that Fox Sports commentator Jason Whitlock—like Kaepernick, an African-American—has questioned not only Kaepernick’s integrity and football ability, but also his blackness?
“This kid was about Instagram models, tattoos, his abs and building up the Colin Kaepernick brand—until the very moment he loses his starting quarterback job,” Whitlock said, “and now he’s out here and he’s ‘Martin Luther Cornrow.’ And he’s got cornrows, he’s Allen Iverson, he’s Angela Davis. I don’t buy it.”
Jason Whitlock, by the way, was working as a scribe for the Kansas City Star in 2009 when he similarly lit into Serena Williams—at the time a champion of 11 Grand Slam tennis tournaments—for being overweight and deficient of “guts….an underachiever [who] lacks the courage to fulfill her destiny.”
To that, Williams, who since has won 11 more Slam events, had a question: “Who is Jason Whitlock?”