When Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem at a pre-season game last year, Barack Obama was still president, and the quarterback was alone. As the season progressed, he was joined by a smattering of black players across several teams, kneeling alone or in pairs, or raising a fist in the Black Power salute. But there didn’t appear to be a groundswell of support for Kaepernick, and he was pounced on by conservatives. Republican politicians, Fox News hosts, some retired players, and millions of irate fans labeled him unpatriotic, hateful of America, unprofessional, and a distraction to his team.
And yet, at the end of the season, Kaepernick received the 49ers’ most prestigious team honor, the Len Eshmont Award for inspirational play, voted on by his teammates. Clearly he had plenty of support from fellow players, even if they themselves were not prepared to risk their careers as he had.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. 70% of NFL players are black, and though the league has made them millionaires, that doesn’t sever their connection to their community, or their pride as African Americans. The NFL knew it had a problem on its hands, one that had nothing to do with patriotism.
Kaepernick did the unthinkable, using the anthem as a platform for a different war.
Professional football games are hardly patriotic occasions. NFL teams are privately owned companies (whose revenues topped $13 billion last year) that use patriotism to galvanize their fan bases. For decades, the playing of the national anthem has been the ultimate marketing tool (partly because it’s regarded as an institution, and not a marketing tool) getting fans to merge their allegiance to country with support for their team about to do battle, a merging we hear in the crescendo of cheers typically coming a few bars before the end. Then Kaepernick did the unthinkable, using the anthem as a platform for a different war.
The owners’ refusal to hire him (no collusion there, heavens no) is said to be a business decision, which frankly adds up: when one player upsets millions of fans (180 million, by common estimate) it’s bad for profits. So: ditch the quarterback, put out the fire.
But the fire has spread, and sideline protests resumed this preseason without Kaepernick. Marshawn Lynch of the Raiders, and Michael Bennett of the Seahawks — stars those teams would be loath to cut — drew attention for sitting out the anthem. Others are kneeling, some are placing hands on the shoulders of those who are kneeling, and on Aug. 17 in Philadelphia, some of those hands were white. Then five days later a dozen Cleveland Browns players, both black and white, knelt in a prayer circle during the anthem—some were visibly crying—and this story turned a new page.
Add to this Charlottesville, and a president who is fanning the flames of white supremacism and police brutality. Add to this more shootings of unarmed black men and still not one conviction (despite more damning video footage, including this bizarre admission), and an Aug. 19 rally where 75 New York City cops wearing “I’m with Kap” T-shirts were willing to acknowledge “the issue of racism and policing in America.” Then a rally outside NFL headquarters in Manhattan four days later, where leaders of the NAACP and other groups demanded free speech protections for NFL players.
Whether or not they sense they’re on the wrong side of history, NFL owners are smart enough to know they’ve got more business decisions to make. They’ve got a predominantly white and conservative fan base, cheering for players who are predominantly black, and you can’t cut them all. Coaches are showing deference to the protests, and white players are joining in.
What will the owners do? Eliminate the national anthem? Keep players off the field for it? (Few remember, but until recently teams remained in the locker room until game time. In 2009, when the Pentagon started paying teams to stage patriotic “tributes,” players were brought to the sidelines to stand and salute the flag during the anthem. Ironically, that change, which would be hard to undo, set the stage for the current protests.)
What’s unpatriotic about praying for America?
Or will they allow players to re-purpose the ritual — which they’re doing anyway? (What’s unpatriotic, by the way, about praying for America?) Would the millions of NFL fans who equate the flag with the military tolerate a ritual devoted to all citizens, affirming our common dignity and equality?
Speaking with reporters, Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett said what our president, after the events of Charlottesville, couldn’t:
“First of all, I want to make sure people understand, I love the military. My father was in the military. I love hot dogs like any other American, I love football like any other American, but I don’t love segregation, I don’t love riots, I don’t love oppression, I don’t love gender slandering. I just want to see people have the equality that they deserve. I want to be able to use this platform to continuously push the message of that, keep journeying out and keep finding out how unselfish can we be as a society. How can we continuously love one another and understand that people are different? And just because they’re different doesn’t mean you shouldn’t like them. Just because they don’t smell the way you smell, just because they don’t eat what you eat, just because they don’t pray to the same God you pray to, that doesn’t mean you should hate them. Whether it’s Muslim, whether it’s Buddhist, whether it’s Christianity, whatever it is, I just want people to understand that, no matter what, we’re in this thing together.”
One last question: with so many teams still needing quarterbacks, will Kaepernick get a tryout?