“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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.” ~Colin Kaepernick
San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s carefully articulated reasoning for taking a knee for the national anthem during a preseason professional football game against the Green Bay Packers was an echo of a frustrated faction of society. Needless to say, his decision has garnered plenty of attention, reaching far beyond sports media outlets. Was the gesture inspiring, appropriate, ill-timed, or simply disrespectful? According to an online Yahoo Sports survey in mid-September, 32 percent support Kaepernick’s protest while 47 percent oppose it. Three out of five of the near 1200 people polled stated that “Kaepernick should’ve chosen a better method for his protest.” Clearly, lack of patriotism is a trait few people overlook in the United States: so let’s start the discussion off with a question: Was this an unpatriotic act?
Yes, refusing to stand during the national anthem is certainly an unpatriotic act in and of itself. The flag is not a merely a reminder of how many states we have gained since the colonies united, it is a symbol. A symbol of the steadfast ideology that our forefathers tattooed in ink on the conscience of the country, a symbol of those brave enough to fight to defend the meaning behind that ink, and a symbol of the pride that permeates to some degree nearly every one of America’s inhabitants. To make the conscious decision to show a lesser degree of respect toward the flag (i.e. sitting or kneeling) that represents these things, especially during the national anthem, is an unpatriotic act.
That said, there is, of course, no requirement for every citizen of the United States to be patriotic or to remain standing for its song. In fact, the right to not be patriotic is inherently central to the First Amendment’s guarantee to free speech. No one with any constitutional awareness disputes Kaepernick’s right to sit.
If the United States were a country more like Maduro’s Venezuela or Stalin’s Russia, the 49ers would be down a quarterback. In fact, going along with the likely assumption that he isn’t protesting simply for attention, Kaepernick’s motivations are about as disrespectful as certain fans in the stands who, as we here might even experience on game days, prefer to glance at their phone during the anthem rather than think about the significance that the flag holds. Few view apathy in the form of scrolling through Facebook during the national anthem as such an insult. Among the adjectives one can ascribe to Kaepernick, apathy is certainly not one of them. And that, at least, is commendable. Whether or not apathy is considered less patriotic than the 28-year-old quarterback’s dissenting action is quite another debate.
Over the past century, athletes have often used sports as a stage for political or social change, many times rightfully so and with more passion and effectiveness than any politician could dream. The most piercing and controversial stand came from the now-beloved Muhammad Ali when he decided against joining his fellow Americans by “dodging” the 1966 draft for the Vietnam War. Ali questioned why he should go to a “Christian war” overseas “to drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam” when his enemy was “not Viet Cong or Chinese or Japanese” but “you,” as he put it in a speech to a mass of college students, “the white people.” Ali was, against the general desire of the public, in the end acquitted of any claims of draft-dodging because his protest was primarily based on religious motives. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Despite how one might view the act then or now, it was a genuinely rousing and effective effort.
There’s no doubting that Kaepernick’s gesture is less risky and therefore less effective than Ali’s protest, but it is also not technically against the law like Ali’s. For that reason – and the fact that Ali endured a period of time where he was possibly the most hated celebrity in America – there is really no use likening the San Francisco quarterback’s protest to his. While Kaepernick may be the most disliked player in the NFL now, “disliked a lot” by 29 percent of people according to a recent e-Poll Marketing Research survey, he does not even come close to Ali’s notoriety.
Furthermore, Kaepernick is not the star he once was and his protest, at first, was less poignant because of it. He lacks the stagnant media spotlight that stalks the likes of Peyton Manning, Michael Phelps, and LeBron James. His career has been much less productive in the past two years, and he is fighting for playing time this season after an injury last year. Kaepernick seems to be past his prime – kids are replacing his posters and fans are drafting him later and later in fantasy football, while the media quietly notes his gradual decline. This gesture would have carried significantly more meaning three years ago, following the uproar over the death of Trayvon Martin while Kaepernick was carrying San Francisco to its first Super Bowl appearance in nearly 20 years. Even protesting the handling of last year’s Freddie Gray case would have made more of a mark. At the same time, one can argue that the gesture is more practical for him at this point in his career. He gets to stay on the bench, get paid, and go on without being criticized for his protest and the quality of his play.
Thankfully, the National Football League has maintained the exact position it should on the matter: “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the National Anthem,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy expressed in a statement to Sporting News. The league’s statement has been broadly praised, mostly because it is rejecting an opportunity to punish certain speech (a right that private entities reserve) in the name of freedom of speech, a stance that any traditional proponent of the liberal democracy would admire.
Of course, the idea of an “open dialogue” is naturally attractive, but when employees for the same organization that fired Curt Schilling specifically for expressing his political beliefs about North Carolina’s bathroom law criticizes some of the opposition that Kaepernick’s action has received, an entirely separate issue arises. Scott Van Pelt, a well-known ESPN personality, did just that in early September. About the some of Kaepernick’s detractors, he says, “People aren’t comfortable with that dialogue . . . If we’re truly trying to solve a problem though, isn’t it very, very necessary?” While I could not agree more with these sentiments, when the same company that pays a person to say such a thing fires someone else for participating in a dialogue on another social issue, there is a problem. It is not uncommon to see these types of private organizations, most of them liberal, punish speech that does not coincide with the organization’s beliefs. As a private organization, of course, they reserve this right. But the frequency with which the punishment occurs gives way to the larger realization that these organizations serve a dual purpose as entertainment or media as well as a warrior for social justice seen through the eyes of the contemporary liberal.
What if someone utilized Kaepernick’s method of protest in order to voice his or her hesitation with the legalization of gay marriage a year ago? Perhaps they believed that the government allows for the murder of unborn fetuses and naturally deemed the issue important enough to take a seat for our nation’s anthem. It is not too far of a stretch to say that there would certainly be little to no sympathy from the “open discourse” proponents within the media over issues such as these.
Ultimately (and optimistically), however, this is but a menial argument often concerned more with lazy journalists looking for the easiest available confirmation to their ideological biases and less with the merit of Kaepernick’s protest or the NFL’s manner of action. Thankfully, we can only speculate on whether the NFL would have acted differently in the case that a player chose to kneel through the anthem for another, perhaps more socially conservative cause.
But as David Harsanyi, Senior Editor at The Federalist, laments in his article “Kaepernick Has a Right to Free Expression, and So Does Everyone Else:” professional sports networks and leagues tend to “inject themselves into political and social debates” such as these.
In saying this, Harsanyi is assuredly correct. The NFL has done a commendable job promoting free speech by allowing Colin Kaepernick to go along with his silent protest while still “encouraging” players to stand for the national anthem. However it is distinctly probable that, for future occurrences of this nature, speech will be protected at the cost of making its way through the filter of the organization from whence it came. And it is all too often that the organization leans left.
This piece was adapted from a featured article in the Fall 2016 Edition of a different name: Kneeling Through Our Nation’s Anthem.
—Nick Geeslin is Editor-in-Chief of The Arch Conservative.