The Price Of Dissent

A Colin Kaepernick story.

Source: @kaepernick7.

A version of this column appeared in the Mumbai Mirror on March 27, 2017. Read an earlier column about Colin Kaepernick here.

“Cassius has made millions of dollars off the American public,” the baseball idol Jackie Robinson said in 1967, when asked to comment on a superstar young boxer’s refusal to be drafted into the United States’ war on Vietnam. “And now he’s not willing to show his appreciation to a country that’s giving him, in my view, a fantastic opportunity.”

Muhammad Ali paid for his felony by sitting out the best years of his life, stripped of his boxing licence. In contrast, only moderate misfortune is befalling Colin Kaepernick, the National Football League quarterback who began many of his games last season with quiet anti-racist protests. In the grand marketplace of ideas that is the NFL, team owners have more or less boycotted Kaepernick, a free agent for the season, uniformly passing him over for a starting spot on any team in the league.

Kaepernick is not, by many accounts, the most talented player in his position in the NFL, but this omission is so obviously guided by non-sporting considerations that even the president of the United States thinks he can take credit for it.

“There was an article today, it was reported, that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump,” he gloated in third person at a rally last week.

When this column covered the Kaepernick protests six months ago, resentment of his political opinions was matched — and perhaps outmatched, outside the US — by love and admiration. Yet, only one of those emotions retains its currency in the backrooms of the NFL, as it would in perhaps any sport. Clearly, the value that brave, enlightened dissent brings to a public spectacle is neither tangible nor of short-term value.

Rationalists may like to point out that a free market allows everyone to leverage their talents and powers to produce desirable outcomes for themselves: Kaepernick values dissent above conformity, his potential employers think otherwise. There can be no rejoinder to the argument that Kaepernick knew what he was getting into when he “took a knee” during the American national anthem.

Nor may he be able to sue for discrimination in a market where his value may have been dented by his unpopular political views. (It didn’t prevent him from selling more jerseys than anyone else on his team last year, for what it’s worth.) That doesn’t erase the fact that it is discrimination, and that a mean and callow show of hatred from the country’s most powerful public official constitutes a grotesque form of bullying.

From faraway India, the situation seems especially striking for its demonstration of how an already vitiated atmosphere can be further spoiled, and very quickly, by the ascendance of the politics of thuggery. Six months ago, the US still seemed like a culture in which the opinion of an unpopular minority could find some cultural support and plenty of legal standing.

In Trump’s America, anything seems possible — including support for laws like India’s, which allow us to prosecute fellow citizens for hurting our personal feelings about the flag, the anthem, and the glories of Indian culture.

This column is not concerned with electoral politics — even if it would love to be some of the time — but it is concerned with the role of sports in sustaining our sense of self and community. This relationship is, at best, centrist and centralising.

When you carry a badge or flag on your kit, we say, you must stand and speak for the nation at its best. You cannot disagree with the majority on what constitutes this best-ness; if you do, you will be punished. Whatever dissent may mean in the nation’s constitution, it means something quite different on the sports field.

We may argue about the unfairness of this state of affairs, but we can accept that this is a norm, and the only way to escape it may be to give up sports altogether. What we should perhaps attend to, in this moment of exceptional political clarity in countries such as ours, is the ease with which the bullying impulse overwhelms this transaction.

In a culture where brute force and selfishness are legitimised as governing principles, the bully is not only safe, but emboldened. This is the atmosphere in which former Test cricketers feel justified in heckling twenty-year-old college students; it is oxygen for politicians who gloat about getting private business owners to act like a cabal.

Even in more peaceful times, we are prone to rationalising this brutality as the price of “opportunity,” as Jackie Robinson once described the athletic career, diminishing his own extraordinary struggle to be accepted as the first African-American player in major league baseball.

The truth is that human dignity is a quality more fundamental to sports than even in-group pride. Clearly, its erosion may only be reckoned with in the arena after it has been reckoned with outside first.