America Kneels On Sunday

A former ballboy examines Colin Kaepernick, #TakeAKnee, and the moral dilemma of being an NFL fan and an American in 2017

Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

It has been over a year since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee.

It has been over 14 months since Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were murdered by police on back-to-back July days. They are — were — just two out of the 233 black people shot and killed by police in the United States in 2016, according to a database maintained by The Washington Post. Last year, black people made up 12% of the US population, yet 24% of the people shot and killed by police. Black males accounted for 34% of the unarmed people killed by police, yet only 6% of the US population. The numbers so far in 2017 are similar. The officers responsible have for the most part not been held accountable. Based on objective data alone, it should not be a controversial statement that there is an epidemic of state-sanctioned violence against black people in this country.

The following month, in August 2016, as tensions stemming from that ongoing violence boiled, tensions stoked by the race-baiting candidacy of then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, Colin Kaepernick sat alone on the bench during the national anthem prior to the San Francisco 49ers’ first two preseason games, while his teammates stood on the sidelines, their hands over their hearts. Likely because he was injured and out of uniform, no one noticed his silent protest. That changed after the 49ers’ third preseason game, on August 26, as he sat once more. A reporter for nfl.com asked Kaepernick about it after the game. He did not mince words.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick explained. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

He was fully aware of the potential repercussions of his protest. “This is not something that I am going to run by anybody,” he said. “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed…. If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”

At the very least, he was right about one thing: Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback of undeniable talent and unique skills in what should be the physical prime of his career, is no longer playing in the National Football League. He is a quarterback who in his second season in the NFL, after taking over as the starter for an injured Alex Smith, led the 49ers to the Super Bowl and showed off a dynamic ability to break down defenses with both his arm and his legs. He is a quarterback who went 12–4 and led the 49ers back to the NFC Championship Game the following season. But then, as the 49ers’ fortunes began to change, so too did their quarterback’s. Head coach Jim Harbaugh, who had spearheaded the resurrection of the franchise’s successes, was let go after clashing with management. Key players abruptly retired. An inexperienced head coach was brought in. Kaepernick’s play suffered and he struggled with injuries. The fans turned on him, zeroing in on his new contract and his bicep-kissing swagger as evidence of his selfishness. In the summer of 2016, Kaepernick, 28 years old and just three seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance in which he threw for over 300 yards, rushed for over 60 more, and scored a touchdown both through the air and on the ground, was fighting for his football life.

He was fighting for his football life, and he took a knee anyway. And it exploded in controversy.

Before the 49ers’ final preseason game, after discussing his position with former NFL player and U.S. military veteran Nate Boyer, who fully supported his right to peaceful protest as an American citizen, Kaepernick decided to kneel during the National Anthem rather than sit on the bench, as a show of respect for the sacrifices of former and current service members. He made it clear to reporters that he was protesting not the flag itself or the military, but the systemic violence and inequality endured by people of color in this country on a daily basis. Kaepernick, despite having already received death threats for his simple act of kneeling, reiterated the reasons — the need — for his protest after the high-profile police killings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott that September.

The public, or more accurately, White America, failed to grasp this nuance. They saw a black man, heavily tattooed and sporting a conspicuous Afro, disrespecting his country and its military, many of whom died for his right, not, as they see it, to protest peacefully, but to earn millions of dollars playing a game. Never mind that to kneel is almost universally seen as a sign of genuflection, of humility. After all, where do Americans most frequently kneel? In church, of course, before God, on that holiest of days, football Sunday. Only when a black man is speaking truth to power, when he is raising awareness of an issue that makes white people uncomfortable, is kneeling misconstrued as a sign of disrespect. In light of Kaepernick’s protest, we must ask ourselves — and by “we,” I mostly mean White America; everybody else already knows the answer — who is disrespected more, the country by his kneeling during the national anthem, or people of color, upon whom generations of violent inequality have been inflicted, by a country invested in maintaining that oppressive status quo?

TIME photo-illustration. Photograph by Michael Zagaris — Getty Images

Despite Kaepernick’s appearance on the cover of the October 3rd issue of Time, and a handful of athletes across different sports following his suit, he mostly remained a lone figure of dissent. While the 49ers floundered and the presidential election dominated news cycles last fall, the controversy surrounding Kaepernick’s protest was pushed to the backburner, even as Trump publicly called him out on the campaign trail, inciting his base to resentment of this supposedly ungrateful black millionaire who dared to voice an unpopular opinion. But is Kaepernick’s protest rendered moot just because he has earned millions of dollars himself, as an athlete of tremendous physical skill and mental discipline? Of course not. LeBron James’ status as the most recognizable athlete in the world did not prevent his Los Angeles-area home from being vandalized with the word “n****r” in graffiti this past May. For all his accomplishments, two-time Pro Bowler Michael Bennett, a member of the Seahawks and one of the most politically outspoken players in the NFL, was still handcuffed on the ground with a gun pointed at his head by Las Vegas police this past August, simply because he was a large black man who happened to be in the same crowded public area where there was a supposed active shooter. (Police later determined no shots had been fired.) Wealth and fame do not protect you if you are black in this country. Even if they did, what Trump’s base, what White America, neglects to understand is that Kaepernick is not simply protesting his own oppression at the hands of the state, but the oppression of people of color across the country who are not afforded his voice or his platform. Or perhaps they do understand, and that is why they so vehemently deny his right to protest; because he calls attention to, and threatens, the entire system of White Supremacy upon which the United States is built, from Native genocide through Southern slavery, from the Jim Crow era through the Civil Rights Movement, and on down to today.

What else could account for the vitriol with which Kaepernick is regarded in NFL front offices? “I don’t want him anywhere near my team,” one front office executive was quoted anonymously as saying, in an article on Bleacher Report. “He’s a traitor.” Another said he would consider resigning if asked by an owner to sign the quarterback. “He has no respect for our country,” yet another executive anonymously offered. “Fuck that guy.” The seven executives interviewed in that article estimated that upwards of 95 percent of NFL front offices shared their feelings. There is room for argument when it comes to Kaepernick’s fitness to start at quarterback in the NFL. But to deem him unworthy of even a backup or third-string job? To deny that he is one of the best 64 or 96 quarterbacks in the league? When even Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady — the two best quarterbacks on the planet and thus authorities when it comes to quarterback play — both advocate for his deserving of a spot on an NFL roster? Well, then something else must be going on. And, after reading how executives around the game view him, it is suddenly not so difficult to understand why Kaepernick — who, anticipating that he would not make the 49ers this summer, which would void his non-guaranteed salary, opted out of his contract in March — is still looking for a job well into the beginning of the 2017 season.

The apparent blackballing of Kaepernick from the league is one of a myriad reasons why I have found it increasingly difficult to abide the NFL. The league does not make it easy to be a fan. To enjoy the game you have to almost entirely set aside your moral conscience. You are rooting for men who are destroying themselves physically, without guaranteed contracts, to make money for a league worth billions of dollars that does not care in the slightest about their short-term or long-term health. Despite the near-certainty of players contracting the crippling neural disease CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy was diagnosed in the brains of 110 of 111 former NFL players in one American Medical Association study published this past summer) and a recent rash of suicides by CTE-afflicted former players, the league alternately discredits, ignores, or buries concussion research. They only pretend to care about rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs (dangerous for the players but, of course, good for the product), while suspending players who use marijuana to treat debilitating pain and illnesses for 10 games. The league’s contempt for women is made clear by their soft stance on domestic violence allegations against its players, while a discipline-happy commissioner fines another player for violating league uniform rules because he wants to wear pink cleats to honor his mother who died from breast cancer, which is apparently only allowed during the designated Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Billionaire owners who profit from it all demand public funds to pay for private stadiums, then leverage their way to a new city when those demands aren’t met. The hypocrisies are endless. To tune our televisions to NFL games every Thursday, Sunday, and Monday is to be complicit in the league’s moral bankruptcy.

And yet, I still care deeply about the NFL. I care deeply about sports, not just as entertainment, but as a cultural and social institution that offers up a mirror to reflect where we are as a country. I believe in the benefit that youth sports has on childhood development and socialization, and the influence that professional athletes have when it comes to modeling citizenship for young fans. I believe in the ability of sports, and especially of individual athletes, to bring about positive change in the world.

Part of my attachment to the game of football no doubt comes from having grown up in an NFL locker room. I worked as a ballboy for the New England Patriots during the height of their dynasty, beginning with the summer training camp following their first Super Bowl win in 2002 on through the 2008 season. When I started I had just gotten my driver’s license and by the time I was done I had graduated college. In between, the Patriots won two Super Bowls, lost another, set records, and created the blueprint for team-building in the modern NFL; I was on the sidelines and in the home locker room of Gillette Stadium for all of it. It was the experience of a lifetime, providing me with memories that I will cherish forever: hoisting the AFC Championship Trophy in the locker room after Ty Law intercepted Peyton Manning three times in the snow; making running grabs of kickoffs in front of 65,000 people during pre-game warm-ups under the Sunday night lights; August two-a-days playing catch with Tom Brady on the practice fields behind the stadium. In high school, my friends were endlessly jealous. In college, they told me it felt like they were keeping in touch by seeing me on TV every Sunday. However, I showed up at that first training camp a shy kid towing some not-insignificant self-esteem issues, qualities that did not serve me well when I eventually went off to college. The Patriots were there for me at a time when I needed them most, at a time when I struggled to belong among my peers. Witnessing the confidence with which the players carried themselves, and being welcomed into the brotherhood of that locker room, changed my life. I may have only been a ballboy, but I was a part of something that was greater than me, and the support of those larger-than-life sports heroes, even if they did not know they were providing it, helped inspire me to come out of my shell. I would not be the person I am today were it not for my years with the Patriots (my profound disappointment in the team’s apparent embrace of Trump is for another time…), and so I have an intimate understanding of, and respect for, the impact that professional athletes can have on young people.

Courtesy of author (that’s 16-year-old me in the middle, yes, kneeling)

Furthermore, I understand and respect what it takes to be a player in the NFL. The dedication, both physical and mental, that is required to become a professional football player, much less to carve out a lasting career in the league, is beyond a layperson’s comprehension. Every single person on an NFL roster has devoted their entire life to get where they are, and they earn every penny they manage to extract from team owners. The NFL is a giant business. The league expects to generate $14 billion in revenue in 2017, while the 32 teams are valued at a combined $80 billion. Fans complain about what they perceive as outrageous salaries in professional sports, but we are the ones spending money on the product. And it’s the players who we pay to see. It’s the players who risk their lives for the game, doing so without guaranteed contracts, a condition in the NFL’s labor agreement with the players’ union that only serves to further line the pockets of the billionaire ownership class. Meanwhile, without guaranteed contracts, players are paradoxically encouraged to push their bodies to greater extremes, to leave it all on the field as a violent rebuke of their expendability. Shouldn’t we, as fans, want the players for whom we root, who sacrifice their health for our entertainment, to receive the lion’s share of the money we pump into the game? If not, then we are simply rooting for the owners — almost all old, obscenely wealthy white men — to become even richer than they already are. In a country built on free market capitalism, where the rich are celebrated as being better than the rest of us, for automatically deserving their wealth simply for having obtained it (in other words, for having realized the American Dream), only in sports and entertainment do we suddenly disdain and begrudge people for being paid what that market determines as their worth. Why? Perhaps because they are fields in which black men and women are highly visible, having risen to the top through talent, charisma, and sheer willpower. Perhaps because White America cannot stand to see a successful black person, cannot imagine a black person who earned that success. After having given black people so little, after having taken from black people for hundreds of years, it registers as a shock to the system of White Supremacy to see a black person thrive.

Donald Trump, as its ultimate product and most preposterous beneficiary, exists to uphold that system. He wields identity politics like a cudgel, both to deflect from the unending string of failures of his presidency, and to enflame the bigotry and resentments of his white base of supporters, driving a wedge deeper into an already-perilously divided nation. Despite Kaepernick’s continued unemployment, or possibly because of it (our so-called president must at all times have an opponent against which to pit his base, even when he has to create one), Trump reignited the controversy surrounding the erstwhile quarterback’s act of protest when, at a rally for a GOP senatorial candidate in Alabama just over a week ago, he railed, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!’” He used his literal bully pulpit to call for private, law-abiding citizens to lose their jobs, and continued to attack the NFL and its players in a series of tweets and interviews throughout the following week. Whether he was employing a bit of strategic distraction — from the failure to achieve any of his legislative or policy goals, despite Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate; from his administration’s failure to respond to the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; from the ongoing erosion of the Constitutional values of the country under his presidency — or simply being true to his impulsive, racist nature, does not matter. That he has committed far worse offenses in the first nine months of his presidency does not matter. We cannot afford to ignore such language from Trump. Yes, of course we have to pay attention to, and fight against, actual policy that is harmful to vulnerable populations. But the nature of the all-out war he is waging on American democracy itself means that we, the people, have to be vigilant and resistant on multiple fronts. Identity politics are not a distraction. They are people’s lives. We can no longer consider the language he uses just a dog whistle. We must treat it as a call to arms. It must be challenged, not only because it is the language that incites his base, but because left unchallenged, it normalizes and brings into the mainstream the sentiments that allowed a Trump to be elected in the first place, and opens the door to who knows what next?

Trump’s comments did not go unchallenged in the world of sports. Stephen Curry and LeBron James forcefully responded, and last Sunday saw perhaps the largest league-wide demonstration in the history of the NFL. But a demonstration of what? I sympathize with the players, and I understand that they wanted to fight back against Trump’s attack on their brotherhood. It is important in this political and social climate that we tell Trump that calling any private citizen, much less someone who is exercising their Constitutional right to protest and free speech, a “son of a bitch” is unacceptable. But the prevailing demonstration across the league, that of teammates standing for the national anthem, arms locked in so-called “unity,” quite literally moves the goalposts. Let us not forget that what Kaepernick was originally protesting when he took a knee, what he continues to protest behind the scenes, is systemic violence and inequality against people of color. The dialogue he started is not simply about Trump (remember, Kaepernick began kneeling while Barack Obama was still in office), or free speech, or coming together as one nation with some vague sense of love. Civil rights are not won harmoniously. Our history has taught us that civil rights are, unfortunately, won with blood, most frequently the blood of oppressed peoples. The arms-linked demonstrations by teams around the NFL are the equivalent of responding to Kaepernick’s protest with “all lives matter.” It makes an uncomfortable message more palatable to white people, and ultimately allows the intent of Kaepernick’s protest to continue to be ignored, in effect upholding the American system of White Supremacy. One needs to look no further than this past week’s cover of Sports Illustrated, which featured notable figures from the weekend’s demonstrations while managing to exclude Kaepernick, without whom the demonstrations would never have taken place, entirely. The conversation has been hijacked, and makes one wonder if it is better to do nothing at all than to whitewash Kaepernick’s message — a message that Kaepernick himself would be delivering every Sunday were it not for his shameful blackballing from the league. There can be no room for lip service and photo opportunities. Real, meaningful brotherhood and real, meaningful unity — from players both black and white— would honor him by carrying on his fight.

Photo by: Bryce Wood

And so we must salute the players, over 200 of them, who either kneeled or sat on the bench during the national anthem before this past Sunday’s games. It is hard not to interpret Kaepernick’s continued unemployment as collusion on the part of the NFL’s owners, to let him serve as a warning against voicing an opinion to the rest of the players around the league. In the face of that, I understand why players, even players who wholeheartedly believe in the cause, would not want to kneel. It is a calculated risk in what is already a risky career. And while protest is not supposed to be comfortable, we must celebrate them for speaking truth to power at great risk to their livelihood. Indeed, beyond even the threat to their employment prospects, some players who knelt have received death threats in the days since Sunday’s demonstrations. They could just as easily not have kneeled. This act of protest against racial inequality is something these players feel to their very souls, and that should be respected. It is not cheap, it is not cynical, it is not disrespectful to the flag, it is not disrespectful to the military. After all, America was founded on dissent. This is what soldiers fight for, what soldiers die for. Not for a piece of fabric, not for a song, but for the Constitution and our rights as American citizens, for all of whom the scales of justice should balance.

Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

For those who question why politics must be injected into football in the first place, it must be said that the association did not start with the players, and it did not start with Colin Kaepernick. The gross spectacle of equating football with patriotism is a longstanding tradition in the NFL. As sports do not inherently have anything to do with the armed forces, how can we view the fanfare surrounding the national anthem, the giant American flags unfurled on the field, the military color guards, and the flyovers of fighter jets, before even the most routine games, as anything other than full-throated political propaganda? The United States Department of Defense and the National Guard have paid millions of dollars to the NFL in the last decade to stage these on-field ceremonies. They are recruiting tools, and nothing more, meant to make the American people feel more connected to the military with the reflexive, unquestioning fanaticism of a sports fan during a time when the moral imperatives, and the politics, of our warmaking have grown ever muddier. Politics have long been a part of the NFL; it is only now that those politics have expanded to include the demand for racial equality from people of color that White America has registered its objection.

Tom Liberman

Meanwhile, far from the spotlight of the game that has banished him, Colin Kaepernick continues his fight. Why doesn’t he put his money where his mouth is? White America asks, and Why doesn’t he do it on his own time, not during the anthem? The answer, of course, is that he is; you either don’t care to look that deeply, or you willfully ignore it. And why during the anthem? Well, now he has your attention. Kaepernick announced last year that he would donate $1 million, as well as his share of the proceeds from sales of his jersey (which continues to be one of the top-selling in the league), to a number of different charities. He has spread that around, often making four $25,000 donations per month to small, local grass-roots activist organizations that otherwise receive little attention. He has also hosted three different “Know Your Rights” camps for children to raise education awareness, inspire leadership, and teach proper interactions with law enforcement. Kaepernick, despite his absence from the league, was even the recipient of the NFL Players Association’s Week 1 Community MVP award, in recognition of his “commitment to empowering underserved communities through donations and grassroots outreach.” He is doing the work behind the scenes, educating himself and taking his role beyond the football field — his role in the community — seriously, following in the footsteps of athlete-activists like Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson to effect real change in this country. Kaepernick has a unique ability to inspire and to rally people to the cause of racial equality, just as Robinson before him inspired future leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Of Robinson and his breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “(He was) a pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.”

Katrina Britney Davis for The Undefeated

Colin Kaepernick is walking toward that same high road, and it is up to the rest of us to ensure his journey is not so lonesome. The story of our country’s history plays out on the football field every Sunday. If real change can begin here, then maybe there is hope for America after all.

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