Hey athletes: Don’t stick to sports.

Professional athletes in 2016 face a rather unique conundrum.

On the one hand, fans and media members alike complain about the fact that the vast majority of them speak in cliches and offer nothing of any real substance in interviews and on social media.

Then there’s the rare occasion where an athlete will actually say something interesting, or do something to stand up for a cause that they believe in, and face backlash from a public that doesn’t agree with what they’re saying. “Stick to sports!” these brave keyboard warriors will cry, as though these athletes aren’t human beings with interests and emotions outside of the field of play.

So, speak in cliches and be labeled boring or speak out and be labeled boorish or, as in the case of 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick, un-American in some circles.

That’s what Kaepernick’s decision to not stand for the Star Spangled Banner all the more noteworthy. When asked why he won’t be standing for the National Anthem, as fans and other athletes do, Kaepernick provided some rare and raw honesty that gave us some true insight as to how he really feels.

From Steve Wyche’s story:

“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 told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “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.”

And you know what? Good for him. Kaepernick likely knew he was going to face backlash for taking such a stand, and he did it anyways. Professional athletes owe us nothing, despite what some on Twitter and in the media seem to think. Much like everyone else, they do a job, only unlike everyone else, their job involves going to work in front of millions of people on a nightly basis.

If a fan chooses not to stand for the National Anthem during a game in a stadium, nobody notices. If a quarterback does it, it becomes an ongoing national story that gets people talking and causes us to take a long, hard look at who we are as a society.

Kaepernick’s not wrong, by the way. Race relations in America, while not at an all-time low, aren’t great right now. As a white male who was raised in a middle class home in a suburb that was almost lacking in any kind of diversity, I’m not going to pretend as though I have any idea as to where he’s coming from. The fact that he was willing to speak his mind knowing he was going to face personal and professional consequences is noteworthy and admirable, and it has sparked a national conversation even if it is bringing out the worst in a lot of people.

On a completely different note, 32-year-old Nykea Aldridge was fatally shot on Friday afternoon while pushing her baby in a stroller. It’s an unspeakable crime but — sadly — it’s one that would have likely generated little attention outside of Chicago but for the fact that Nykea Aldridge is Bulls star Dwyane Wade’s cousin, which brought the fact that violence in Chicago is out of control to the forefront of the national conversation.

Wade himself took to Twitter to tell the nation what so many of us in Chicago have known for far too long.

Tying Kaepernick’s controversial stance on the National Anthem with Wade’s emotional public reaction to his cousin’s death is a bit of a stretch, and I fully acknowledge this.

Here’s my point: Guys like Kaepernick and Wade have the kind of platform and influence to bring issues to the forefront that might otherwise be swept under the rug by the constantly churning 24 hour, headline-driven news cycle. And while guys like them owe us as a society nothing, it would be refreshing to see more guys use that platform to speak about issues they’re passionate about, consequences be damned, rather than “sticking to sports.”

Anybody only talking about issues relating to their chosen profession doesn’t do anybody a service. I cover retail for a living and, while I love my job, if I was limited to only speaking about topics related to retail during every waking moment of my existence, I would go insane. Imagine if you faced a backlash every time you spoke about something that didn’t have anything to do with what you do for a living. You too would feel frustrated, burned out, and more importantly, you’d feel insulted by the fact that society had mentally marginalized you as a human being.

More professional athletes speaking out about issues and causes they’re passionate about won’t eradicate all of society’s evils. But if the past week has shown us anything, doing so will bring these issues to the forefront of our consciousness, which will subsequently start the kinds of conversations that could, eventually, affect actual change for the better within our society.

Full disclosure: Four and a half years ago, I wrote something completely contradictory to the above. My stance has, obviously, changed on this particular issue. With age comes wisdom, I guess.

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