Colin Kaepernick's protest highlights America's fragile grip on their own freedoms

The quarterback's protest against the national anthem has drawn both criticism and support

BY Adrian Collins 18:35 Sunday 4 September 2016, 18:35 4 Sep 2016

Image: Denis Poroy / AP/Press Association Images

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's simple gesture of sitting during the national anthem, rather than standing along with the rest of his team-mates on the sideline, has propelled the player from the headlines of the sports pages to the op-ed columns of the politics section. 

On Thursday in San Diego, on what was military appreciation night in a city that is home to a number of military bases, he continued his protest as he knelt down while a naval officer sang The Star Spangled Banner.

Speaking afterwards, Kaepernick stood before the media, as he had done after the game against Green Bay when he was first pictured performing that protest, and answered every question that was put to him.

"The message is that we have a lot of issues in this country that we need to deal with," said Kaepernick, adding "we have a lot of people that aren't treated equally, aren't given equal opportunities. Police brutality is a huge thing that needs to be addressed."

As with any athlete who speaks out on an issue, there were the usual comments on his eloquence or what some perceived to be the lack thereof, but the issue drew huge criticism from some sectors of the media, both social and traditional. 

Former New York Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason cited Kaepernick's $11 million salary, and added that he is "severely under-informed, and I welcome him to go ride in a cop car and take numerous 911 calls, going into places where guns and violence are everyday occurrences." Fox News host Brian Kilmeade raised Kaepernick's upbringing, saying "he was adopted by two white parents, he was well supported."

Fellow quarterback Drew Brees said "there’s plenty of other ways that you can do that [protest] in a peaceful manner that doesn’t involve being disrespectful to the American flag [...] it’s an oxymoron that you’re sitting down, disrespecting that flag that has given you the freedom to speak out."

The issue has been dubbed a publicity stunt; Kaepernick's career at the 49ers has been on the slide since he lead the team to the Super Bowl in 2013, and there was some speculation that he was on the verge of being cut from the team before the start of the new season. According to Bleacher Report, a source close to the player said "he fully expected to be released by the 49ers once everyone became aware of his actions." That has lead some to question the timing of the move, as if they do decide to part ways with him, they would need to clarify that it had nothing to do with his protests against the anthem.

As a result of his stance, Kaepernick was roundly booed as he took to the field to warm up on Thursday, and similarly throughout the game faced the ire of the crowd in San Diego. The common thread of the anger was that, by not standing for the anthem, he was somehow disrespecting the people that had died or have dedicated their lives to military service. 

A cursory glance at the #VeteransForKaepernick hashtag will show that to be a misguided one - by and large, serving members of the military have supported his gesture, noting that defending the freedom to criticise the country in which they live is a large part of why they signed up in the first place. 

Kaepernick was not the first athlete to take a stand on the issue this summer however, after Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James began the ESPYs with a call to an end to gun violence and the racial divide that still exists in America.

They were not criticised in the same way, largely because their gesture was an easier one to make. No one was going to boo them off the stage at the event where they were due to be celebrated. As one of the greatest players to ever set foot on a court, few people would hit out at LeBron either, in particular after winning Cleveland's first sporting trophy since 1964.

They had control of the story as they stood before the camera to explain themselves, "eloquently," of course. They explained the reasoning behind their stance, calling on other athletes to join them in reshaping the communities that have been most affected by the violence.

In his section of the speech, Wade pleaded for the conversation around gun violence to continue no matter when and where it took place. Noting that a busy schedule is no excuse for letting it fall off the radar, he added: "it won't always be convenient, it won't. It won't always be comfortable, but it is necessary."

Those players were applauded for their gesture, but Kaepernick has faced opprobrium for doing exactly what Wade called for - his protest, like that of many others before him, has made people uncomfortable. 

Tommy Smith and John Carlos' salute at the 1968 Olympic Games, Jackie Robinson's participation in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, and Muhammad Ali's stance on the Vietnam War - all those athletes took a stand that caused discomfort for the majority.

As recently as June, a piece in the LA Times declared that there would never be another Ali; no star could force "Americans by his very presence to decide where they stand on contentious issues." There is too much money and too many sponsorship deals on the line. 

Of course, Kaepernick is no Ali, not alone in terms of talent, but in the fact that his turn to activism seems to have somewhat come out of the blue. The tone of his Instagram profile changed recently, switching form a slew of selfies to sharing Malcolm X quotes and images of police brutality.

That has only served as a further stick to beat him with, as his motives once again came under scrutiny in the light of his apparent newfound activism. 

A larege part of that is because of the medium through which the image of his protest was first disseminated - Twitter. The flames of social media are fueled not by reasoned debate but by outrage and offence. A perceived slight, even on behalf of someone else (as was the case here with the veterans) spurns thousands of opinions which only need to be informed to the point that they can fill 140 characters. 

One of Kaepernick's principle arguments is that the anthem itself, the song, does not represent him. He was pictured clapping at the game against San Diego when the announcer thanked the members of the military for their service and stood during a rendition of God Bless America.  

This has started a conversation about the link between the anthem and sporting event, a story which began in 1918 when the band at a Chicago Cubs game struck up the first notes of the anthem in a dull game that had been watched in almost total silence to that point. The players stood to attention, the crowd got on their feet and sang, and it proved to be a popular way of getting people in through the gates from there on out, before becoming a tradition.

The NFL's role in appreciating the military and the money that exchanged hands as a result was the subject of a congressional report recently, and further muddies the waters of that relationship.

Image: Denis Poroy / AP/Press Association Images

By sitting, Kaepernick has brought these issues to light, from considerations on the lyrics of the anthem to the mainstream discussion on the way he has chosen to make his protest.

The common refrain of those who feel uncomfortable with the issues he is raising is that "it's his right" to protest. In the land of the free, that should go without saying by virtue of it being a right; in fact it goes against the principle of free speech itself to dictate how and when someone can exercise that right.

It reflects the conversation that the nation itself is having during the presidential election. In a recent speech, Hillary Clinton highlighted the role played by the alt-right to date in the process, and how Donald Trump giving them a platform shows a "disregard for the values that make our country great."

Trump's "Make America Great Again" tagline encapsulates an idea that something is wrong because he and his supporters feel they are losing ground, losing a grip on something that they thought was once theirs. It is about jobs and economic security, to a point, but it is also the country itself.

Kaepernick's peaceful protest says something similar in a more direct way - there is something wrong and we need to address it. America is being forced to come face to face with the fact that they believe in their fundamental rights, but on both sides of an increasing divide, some people still believe they should be able to dictate to others when and where they can exercise those rights.

The end goal of Kaepernick's protest is inclusion, not division. The Black Lives Matter movement is not asking to run in contrast to All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, they are asking for a seat at the table to discuss why so many unarmed young black men are still being killed every year, or why racist text messages are still being sent around in the San Francisco Police Department in 2016.

Before that can happen, those who believe that they can paper over the cracks must be finally forced to see them, especially if that means being confronted with them in an uncomfortable way.

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