In what has been one of the biggest media firestorms in ages, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has recently come under intense scrutiny for his decision to sit during the national anthem of a preseason football game, citing his opposition to the oppression of black Americans and racially-based police brutality as the reasoning behind his protest. It was a powerful statement from a player who has increasingly shrunk from the sports world’s eye and succeeded in, if nothing else, getting people talking.
I won’t discuss my views here on the issues Kaepernick brought up, nor will I argue that he should have been forced to stand, which would have been a clear violation of his right to free speech. Rather, I think it’s best to look at this incident through the great history of sports activism.
There’s a cynic in me that says this was all some sort of elaborate publicity stunt and Kaepernick did it to distract from the fact that he just lost his starting job to the immortal Blaine Gabbert, but I don’t think this was the case. Athletes have a platform unique only to them and certain members of the entertainment industry in which they can easily reach millions of people and instigate social change. Perhaps professional athletes, who so often seem larger-than life, are faced with the challenge of stepping down from their ivory towers to reach everyday people, but I think most folks are more willing to relate to their sports heroes than they are to, say, a typical politician. What resonated more, Rick Scott saying his heart went out to the family of Trayvon Martin, or the Miami Heat players emerging from the pregame tunnel solemnly adorned in black hoodies?
Sports are in so many ways an imitation of real life. The Ancient Greeks, from whose sports culture much has been drawn in the modern world, created much of their earliest athletic competitions to be simulations of warfare (combat sports, javelin throwing, etc.), and in the millennia since they have come to embody much more of the human experience. We support and connect to our favorite players as if they were part of our family, we grieve big losses with the solemnity of a funeral, we stress about the financialss of our teams as though they were the money troubles of our own lives. Nothing is quite so much an accurate or cathartic model of reality as sports. It only makes sense then that when someone in the sports world stands out to protest something, a corresponding someone(s) would mirror him and take the battle to the real world.
So you can criticize Kaepernick all you want on the issues he is choosing to protest, but never say that he is stepping out of line in using his voice at all. As he rightly said, “this is bigger than football.” Men like Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali, proved that many times over, using their athletic prowess to leverage a meaningful place in the civil rights debates of their day. What Kaepernick is trying to do is no different, and all those athletes are remembered (for the most part) as national heroes, a term I don’t think you will hear thrown around around Kaepernick’s name very often. Whether that is fair or not is a matter that history will decide when it documents the social climate of the 2010s, but until then, let no other athlete ever be afraid of standing up and speaking out for what they believe.