San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick stands on the field before their NFL pre-season football game against the Denver Broncos in San Francisco, California, U.S. August 8, 2013. REUTERS/Stephen Lam/File Photo
Colin Kaepernick, the backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, made headlines when he refused to stand for the National Anthem.
Explaining his position to Sam Wyche of NFL.com, he said:
“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.”
Many have reacted by denouncing the manner Kaepernick chose to deliver his message, or even the validity of him as a messenger, rather than the message itself.
First, let’s address the criticism over the manner he delivered the delivered.
When I was in the Air Force, way back in 1989, there was a big movement to make desecrating the flag a crime, via an amendment. I wrote a column for the Stars and Stripes protesting that idea.
Those who supported the amendment maintained that the flag was symbolic of the freedoms our soldiers had fought and died for, and that desecrating the flag disrespected that sacrifice.
To me, that logic was upside down. Burning the flag was an act of speech. And while some might find it a loathsome form of expression, it is also powerful for that very reason. We wouldn’t be discussing this today if it weren’t.
The flag is a symbol of our freedoms. However, it isn’t the actual freedom. To strip away the freedom by suppressing that kind of speech is far more devastating.
If someone burns a flag, they’re destroying a piece of cloth symbolic of an idea. If someone makes that illegal, they’re destroying the actual idea it represents. And I’d rather have a flag in ashes than one void of meaning.
To me, the real disrespect to the soldiers who “died for our freedom” isn’t burning the flag; it’s those who render their deaths meaningless by stripping away the rights they died defending.
So when it comes to things like an athlete not giving the proper tribute during the National Anthem, it doesn’t bother me. Whether I agree with their point or not is moot. I agree with their right to make the point they’re making.
Complaining about it is the true disrespect. I will fight for your right to say things, even if I don’t agree with what you said. I might voice my disagreement with the content of what you say, but I won’t bemoan you’re saying it.
But some will then retreat to the argument that Kaepernick, who has made millions playing for the NFL, isn’t the right “messenger” to make it. (We’ll set aside the irony that many of these same people support a white billionaire who has built his presidential candidacy on criticizing the country for a later discussion.)
The “disqualified-by-success” argument presents a possibly even greater challenge to democracy. If successful people can’t make the stance, who can?
There are millions of black men who in some way or other made statements about oppression every single day. The only problem is, no one knows who they are, and as a result, no one knows what they said.
Sure, they could band together and from a protest, but the same people criticizing Kaepernick would call the protesters “rioters” and “thugs,” claiming they have “no problem with the country when they’re cashing their welfare checks.” In short, they would be (and have been) disregarded for their lack of success.
Some would argue that Kaepernick is just a football player and that he should just be a football player, as though being an athlete bars you from having an opinion or moral convictions.
And many of those same people are the ones who dismiss politicians like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who have devoted their lives to fighting racial inequality as “race baiters.”
So who then is allowed to protest? How are these voices to be heard if we shut out both those who have success and those who have none? Those who devote their careers to combating inequality and those who work in other fields?
Is it really about the messenger or just censoring the message?
Rather than focus on the single biggest and most pervasive issue our nation has faced since before it was even born, we continue to kick the can down the road, bickering over petty things like the appropriate homage to the flag or who is qualified to talk about it.
And that might get to what really stings so many Americans about Kaepernick’s protest.