All Kaepped Out

Sports and Race in America

What has happened to Colin Kaepernick since he first took a knee late last summer is a remarkable example of how America remains largely unwilling to truly confront issues of race and collectively cringes whenever someone dares to bring attention to them, especially in the context of sports. I am so frustrated with the chorus of voices, from current and retired football players to sports analysts to average Joes on the street, saying that Kaepernick has disrespected the military and the flag by failing to stand for the National Anthem. They assert this false narrative despite the fact that he made clear before and after their complaints that his protest was not against the military but rather against the unjust and unfair conditions under which minorities live in this country. It reminds me of a personal experience when, during the height of the Iraqi War, Sheryl Crow protested against President Bush and the decision to go to war. I heard a partner in my firm say that he didn’t support Crow anymore because “she is against our troops.” Now, this guy was a brilliant litigator whose job it was to listen to what people specifically said and reasonably interpret it. Yet, when it came to Crow’s actions and the reasons she expressed for the protest, this lawyer had chosen to distort her intentions to justify his opposition to her actions.

Similarly, Kaepernick’s detractors have chosen to distort his intentions in an effort to not only justify their opposition, but to paint an image of him as unpatriotic and un-American. Amazingly, their strategy worked, as the number of voices opposed to Kaepernick for the same reasons seemed to increase significantly as the protest continued.

My sense is that the people most in opposition to Kaepernick’s position fall in the category of sports consumers who believe that sports are an escape from the real world and they don’t want real world issues infiltrating the sacrosanct SportsWorld. I’m a sports consumer who happens to believe that the SportsWorld is just a microcosm of the real world and thus reflects all of the societal ills that the real world does. I agree with Smith & Hattery’s (2011) assertion that anyone who is surprised to hear that the SportsWorld reflects the real world is not interested in a discussion about the SportsWorld as a site of privilege, race, class and gender. In fact, I might go a bit further and suggest that it is an act of privilege to even say you watch or attend sports events to get away from the world. The fact that you are in a position to have the time and money to watch games or purchase tickets to attend games suggests that you are doing better than a lot of Americans. Furthermore, for some of us, not even sports can provide relief from the realities of racism and prejudice in the country. See this weekend’s events in Charlottesville as an example.

One of the most frequently cited benchmarks for racial improvement in this country occurred in the SportsWorld and is commemorated every year in the SportsWorld and beyond: the desegregation of Major League Baseball by Jackie Robinson on April 15, 1947. This event is often held up as a moment in which the racial trajectory of the nation shifted from one grounded in racism and inequality to one grounded in acceptance, equity and, most importantly, hope. It’s almost disingenuous for someone to say that professional sports are separate from the real world when sports are a primary construct through which sports owners, managers and consumers of the dominant hegemony have asserted their power. Kaepernick’s protest was against racial inequality. Does it follow that those who opposed the protest believe that such inequality doesn’t exist or that the status quo should remain? They would never admit that, but I firmly believe that that’s what threatens them most about his stance. That equality for African-Americans means that something will be left inequitable in their lives.

Some sports consumers want to celebrate the hard scrabble stories of athletes who overcome poverty to make it to the professional level, yet not acknowledge that those very circumstances in which they were raised were no doubt due in part to politics and inequities. When they make it big, they are expected to remain silent on the inequities to which they continue to bear witness and experience. To do so, though, denies them their humanity.

Kaepernick’s protest, which drew comparisons to Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be inducted into the military as a conscientious objector on religious grounds, also served as a reminder of how quickly Americans forget or tend to revise history. In talking about Ali and his protest, people effused nostalgic (and somewhat forgetful) as though the revered Ali of 2016 was equally revered in 1966. To the contrary, 1966 saw him labeled a coward, a draft dodger, a disgrace. He was subsequently arrested, tried and convicted and stripped of his boxing license as a result of the stand he took. He ultimately overcame, but not without the loss of income, stature and prime years of his boxing career.

Kaepernick is going through a similar season now. Despite being at least a quality back-up quarterback in the NFL and stating that he does not intend to take a knee in the upcoming season, not one team has picked him up, while the likes of Geno Smith, Mike Glennon and Josh McCown were all picked up by teams in the offseason.

It’s been no surprise to hear Kaepernick’s protest should have not occurred on the field. However, the last thing a protest is supposed to do is make people comfortable. In fact, it’s probably failed miserably if folks are made comfortable by it. It’s hard to get folks who’ve never encountered racial prejudice or discrimination and have no empathetic instincts to understand what it’s like or why we feel so passionately when discussing it.

At the end of the day, I think that history will look favorably upon Kaepernick. I don’t think he’ll reach iconic levels that rival Ali, but I do think that hearts will soften towards him over time and he’ll be viewed as courageous and brave at a time when very few athletes would have sacrificed their livelihoods for the cause of justice. If progress is to be made, we must face the ugly truths that his protest brought to the forefront. Key to that progress is those who are made uncomfortable by these conversations getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. If it’s hard for you to think or talk about racism, imagine how hard it is to live with it.

Smith, E. & Hattery, A. (2011). Race Relations Theories: Implications for Sport Management. Journal of Sport Management, 25, 107–117.

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