Image by Seatacular
Colin Kaepernick changed both the sports world and the real world in August when he refused to stand for the national anthem and 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. 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.”
Any time an athlete has spoken out in recent years against police violence, whether it’s the NBA players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts, after New York police killed Eric Garner, or the St. Louis Rams writing “my children’s lives matter” on their uniforms, or even tweeting the name of someone killed, it has mattered. It has mattered because it amplifies the struggle. It gives a lift to organizers in the streets who often work in anonymity, doing the difficult grassroots organizing work. And it forces the mass of white people who in our deeply segregated society only actually “see” and acknowledge black and brown people in a positive way when they are playing sports, to confront a distinctly different set of life experiences.
It also speaks to why black and brown athletes have always been policed by the media and sports owners for their political statements. It’s not the power of their words as much as the power of their reach.
But Kaepernick’s protest has had a different kind of power and reach than anything we have seen in recent years. How do we know? First of all it has enraged all the right people.
Donald Trump, who has spent the last year trashing the United States, said of Kaepernick, “Maybe he should find a country that works better for him.”
Iowa Congressman and avowed white supremacist Steve King said of Kaepernick, “This is activism that’s sympathetic to ISIS.” And supermodel Kate Upton tweeted, “This is unacceptable. You should be proud to be an American.”
These critics are ridiculous. But Kaepernick and his supporters have also received death threats from a resurgent white nationalist movement that believes the role of athletes is to shut up and play.
They also have had their First Amendment rights threatened by police: government employees who have said they would not do their jobs if the protests continued. In an astonishing quote, the head of Miami’s police union said of protesting NFL players, “I respect their right to have freedom of speech. However, in certain organizations and certain jobs you give up that right of your freedom of speech temporarily while you serve that job or while you play in an NFL game.”
These guardians of order are afraid. They are afraid because Colin Kaepernick’s message is politically different from say, LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony speaking out at the ESPY awards, or even the women of the WNBA wearing T-shirts that call for an end to all violence and pay tribute to Philando Castile, Alton Sterling—both killed by police—and also the police officers killed in Dallas.
It’s different because, as welcome as their outspokenness has been, those other athletes have been calling for peace while Kaepernick is calling for justice. Through his peaceful protest he is declaring that as long as there is a gap between the values the flag purports to represent and the real world, then there will be no peace.
In this regard, Kaepernick has been standing in the tradition of Muhammad Ali. Ali did not try to “build a bridge” between the pro-war establishment and anti-war activists. He took a side. He took a side in order to win a political fight.
And yet for so many frothing members of the sports media, the same sports media that praised Ali to the heavens upon his death, Kaepernick is an enemy. The irony of praising Ali while bashing Kaepernick is lost on them.
The most common response to Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest against police violence in the corridors of the sports world has been, “I support his goal, but not his methods.”
This has been “the line” from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice to quarterbacks Drew Brees and Russell Wilson. It has also been echoed by Atlantic columnist Peter Beinart, New York Times columnist David Brooks, and a host of liberal Beltway pundits. Brooks, without irony and without shame, even invoked Dr. King to justify his argument that Kaepernick should stop protesting.
What all these people have in common is that they are 2016 textbook examples of Martin Luther King Jr.’s searing description of “the white moderate” in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” (See Comment by Kevin Alexander Gray, page 6.)
The season for dissent is clearly now. On September 1, Kaepernick was joined by teammate Eric Reid, who also took a knee, and Seattle Seahawks Jeremy Lane. Since that time several dozen NFL players have followed, kneeling or raising a fist, in the style of John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s anthem protest from the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games. High school football teams, college cheerleaders at Howard, middle-school football players, the volleyball team at Minneapolis South High School, athletes all over the country quickly followed suit and took a knee.
From Seattle to Oakland to Tallahassee to Beaumont to Prince George’s County to the Twin Cities, the movement is spreading. Soccer player Megan Rapinoe became the first professional athlete to protest during the anthem while wearing a United States jersey, in a U.S. Women’s National Team game against the Netherlands.
Rapinoe said, “Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future. It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that’s really powerful.”
Despite the anger and threats, as of this writing it feels safe to say that these protests will only spread. The NBA season is starting soon and when asked if the protests would reach the league, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Iman Shumpert prophesied, “You best believe I’m going to take me a knee for the anthem.” Kaepernick has also gotten the support of veterans’ organizations who have defended him against the absurd charge that protest is somehow unpatriotic. They formed the ad hoc online campaign called “#VeteransForKaepernick.” That’s more than a gesture. That’s a major political statement.
One of the great things about movements is that they revive hidden histories, in this case the histories of other athletes who have used their platform to protest. It has given new voice to Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
But closest to my heart, it has pushed people to rediscover Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. In 1996, the Denver Nuggets guard said that on principle he could not stand for the national anthem because the flag, in many countries, represented “oppression and tyranny.” He was fined and suspended, but to this day he says he has no regrets.
I spoke with him and he said, “I realized at a young age that I had to break these chains because I felt that there were things I wanted to say, things that I saw that were unjust, and I said to myself, ‘Why am I afraid? Why am I a coward? Why can’t I communicate this? Why can’t I say this?’ And I had to slowly begin a process of doing that which eventually led to protesting the flag. I mention this all the time because I love this woman and her writings, Arundhati Roy, the Indian political activist and author, and she said: ‘Once you see something, you can’t unsee it. So to be silent, to say nothing, is just as political an act as speaking out. Either way you’re accountable. So we’re not saved through our silence, actually, the politics of silence is a negative one, we’re still accountable.’
“And I said I don’t want to be on that side of history. I want to stand up for principles and I want to live and die with a free conscience and a free soul whether anybody likes it or not. I’m not always going to be right, I’m not always going to be eloquent, but I’m always going to try my best to stand up for what’s right and what’s just, whether people like it or not. And so I began that process and that’s where it’s taken me and I don’t have any regrets. Despite all of the backlash and all of the setbacks, like one brother said, the setback ain’t nothing but a setup to a comeback.”
What has “come back” is the political athlete, and in this dreary campaign season, it could not have happened soon enough.
Dave Zirin is the host of the popular Edge of Sports podcast and the sports editor of The Nation. His latest book is Brazil’s Dance with the Devil.