The Anthem & The Singer

A Colin Kaepernick column.

Source: @kaepernick7 on Instagram.

A version of this column first appeared in Mumbai Mirror on September 26, 2016.

I wanted to write this column exactly one month ago, when American sports journalists on my timeline first started to tweet about an athlete named Colin Kaepernick. A 29 year old star in the United States’ National Football League, Kaepernick sat out the national anthem played before a team game in peaceful protest of racial injustice. It was a striking gesture from the heart of American football’s culture of macho patriotism.

But a month ago this gesture seemed both cosmetic and futile, doomed to repression, then to oblivion. Chest-thumping declarations of loyalty to church and state aren’t just part of most American sports played by men — they constitute them at their foundations. Sitting out an anthem in such a culture, even with the best intentions, seemed like refusing to mud-wrestle the proverbial pig after having locked oneself in the sty.

Neither I nor many of Kaepernick’s own compatriots predicted that he would inspire protests all over his country and begin a debate that has embedded itself in American consciousness in spite of the odds. In the weeks since Kaepernick began his protest, he has changed his stance: he now kneels instead of sitting as a mark of respect to US armed forces.

A video of Oklahoma police shooting an unarmed black man in cold blood has gone viral, underscoring the urgency of #BlackLivesMatter protests all over again.

Students in American high schools have started to imitate his gesture, often paying the price in team suspensions. The country’s top athletes across sports have been dragged into a debate over the propriety of his actions. Many have condemned him; many more including NFL darling Cam Newton — who, like Kaepernick, is a black quarterback — have side-stepped the uproar. Some have ‘taken a knee’ with him. This week Kaepernick, kneeling, is on the cover of Time magazine.

All over the world, sports subordinates itself to nationalism so that other divisions in society may be forgotten, at least briefly. That’s why the national anthem played before a match is often so unexpectedly moving. It’s difficult not to well up at the sound of N’Kosi Sikeleli Africa, the high note of Mandela-style South African optimism. Stadiums full of people are required to respect both Pakistan’s and Bangladesh’s national anthems in the five minutes before a game, less than 50 years after an existential war that changed the fates of both nations.

But these goalposts also shift when anthems become spectacles made for the media. Michel Platini noted that no one in his generation sang along to the Marseillaise. French footballers’ obligation to perform the song only became a big deal once its first successful generation of immigrant footballers was scrutinised by far-right politicians, and divided into those who sang and those who kept their mouths shut as the camera trailed past their faces. (Mesut Ozil now receives the same morbid attention in Germany.)

Cricket, which owes its internationalism wholly to the lingering grasp of the British Empire, is only slowly integrating this performance of national allegiance. It’s still unusual for TV channels to broadcast anthems before Test matches, which is why if you were watching the start of India’s 500th Test last week, the sound of Jana Gana Mana may have come as a surprise. Even the notion of what an anthem should be varies from team to team here. The English team elects to stand for Jerusalem rather than God Save The Queen; the multinational West Indies plays a mournful but lovely song called Rally Round The West Indies.

I’ve said before in this column that the least a democracy can do in the sporting arena is guarantee freedom and safety to players making non-violent protests, because they do it for — not against — the society they represent. America’s shockingly ill-chosen presidential candidate Donald Trump has told Kaepernick to find a nation that suits him better if he doesn’t like the one he lives in. ‘Find another country’ propounders such as Trump are, of course, deliberately ignoring the fact that if you bring patriotism into any arena, you are also bringing the capacity for patriotic dissent into it.

If you think sports should be safe from dissent, you must concede that the game would not matter so much if it didn’t underline deep, often unconscious truths about the world you live in. If you mourned the death of Muhammad Ali just a few months ago, you must take the quiet revival of his spirit in Colin Kaepernick seriously.