For years, whenever my friend would go to a sporting event, he refused to take off his hat during the national anthem. He’d stand, but he thought the specific request to remove one’s hat in honor of our country was a ridiculous custom, and felt his refusal to remove the hat was in no way a slap in the face to those who serve our country at home or abroad. Certainly, he’d say, standing respectfully with a hat on is not worse than those who drink their beers and check their phones during the song.
My friend took a lot of crap for his decision — at times by me, if I’m being honest — because his protest seemed ridiculous.
Colin Kaepernick’s protest is not ridiculous.
The 49ers quarterback has refused to stand during the national anthem this preseason, a protest he had been doing for several weeks before he was spotted sitting on the sidelines this weekend. When asked if he is going to continue to sit, Kaepernick said he will, to bring awareness and, as he put it, “to make people realize what’s really going on in this country.”
“I’m going to stand with the people that are being oppressed, Kaepernick told reporters. “To me this is something that has to change and when there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country–is representing the way that it’s supposed to–I’ll stand.”
Being the NFL, it became a thing.
Being the current political climate in America where the number of flags you have on stage and whether or not you are wearing a flag pin are indicative of how much you love your country, it became a big thing.
Being Philly, with veteran leader Malcolm Jenkins saying after the Eagles game on Saturday he disagrees with Kaepernick’s decision, and un-drafted rookie Myke Tavarres saying Monday he wants to emulate Kaepernick, this might be a really big thing, soon.
Kaepernick’s decision not to stand during the anthem has been understandably met with derision. It’s difficult, even for the less polarized to parse; it’s a free country, so he can do what he wants, but by doing what he wants he’s disrespecting the country, and those who fight for our freedoms.
The easy reaction to Kaepernick’s protest has been to point out how rich he is, as if the size of one’s bank account has anything to do with how those of one’s race, religion or creed are treated. Former NFL player Domonique Foxworth penned an article for The Undefeated that, in part, challenged that point directly.
Though the argument that being successful requires that you not speak out against injustice would be laughable if it weren’t so stupid and persuasive.
As if we listen to the people most harmed by America’s history of inequity.
As if we value input from kids in overcrowded and underfunded schools.
As if we respect the opinions of convicts.
As if we give press conferences to single moms.
In an America where many of the most powerful people use their power and influence to gain further advantages, widening the gap between their children and ours, Kaepernick has risked more than most people to speak up for you.
And yet, Kaepernick is part of a team, and while the NFL does allow players to have their names on the backs of their jerseys, those same players get fined if their socks are too low or if they want to wear a pink wristband any month other than October.
The NFL prides itself on uniformity, so when members of the then-St. Louis Rams put their hands up in silent protest of the calamitous situation in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, it made really big news, too.
Two years later, the nation isn’t any less fractured, the takes aren’t any less hot, the reactions any less nuanced. Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem is the type of situation that makes people uncomfortable, which is the point. And this makes people even more uncomfortable; with him, with the NFL, with each other.
Chip Kelly said he respects his players’ rights, including the right not to stand for the anthem. Kaepernick’s old coach, Jim Harbaugh, said he doesn’t “respect the motivation or the action” of not standing for the anthem, then clarified on Twitter that he “support(s) Colin’s motivation. It’s his method of action that I take exception to.”
When a man who buys his khakis from Walmart becomes a voice of reason, we are all doomed. (And, yes, that’s a joke. This is getting heavy and I wanted to break it up.
Pleats Please, relax.)
Players around the league have taken sides, too. Here, in Philly, Jenkins thinks there’s a different way to fight for social change. From Tim McManus of ESPN.com:
“If you want change and you want things to get better across the country, there’s different ways to go about it. What’s going to get lost is all the stuff that he was trying to point out,” Jenkins said. “I think everybody is going to talk about how him making the money that he does as an NFL player and basically kind of shaming the flag or whatever, shaming the country, is unpatriotic.
“You talk about troops and being able to honor that, that’s what’s going to get talked about. It’s not going to be about the lives that have been lost across the country, the injustices that are being done to minorities all across this country, that’s what’s not going to be in the headlines. It’s going to be about him.”
Jenkins isn’t wrong. The conversation this week has been about Kaepernick’s decision far more than the social injustices he is protesting, specifically the violence against persons of color in communities around the country, many of who fear for their safety when dealing with the very law enforcers charged with protecting and serving all our communities. Not just the rich ones. Not just the white ones.
Instead of talking about that, the conversation has mostly been about Kaepernick. But that’s not his fault. It’s ours. We, the people, can’t get out of our own damn way sometimes. Even this piece is more about the NFL players and their reaction to the act and less about the reasons for it in the first place. It’s our nature to gravitate to the shiny gold helmet first, which is probably proving Kaepernick’s point, in a way.
(Question: Has Ryan Lochte tweeted about the anthem situation yet? Let’s wait to hear what he has to say before making any final judgments.)
Jenkins did admit he’s had similar feelings to Kaepernick, telling ESPN, “[w]e’re all faced with opportunities. For myself, we stand there and we stand for the national anthem, and sometimes those thoughts go through your mind, like, ‘Do I want to actually acknowledge this?’ Because you might be upset about what’s going on.”
For others, like the Eagles’ undrafted rookie Tavarres, Kaepernick is an inspiration. Tavarres said Monday he planned to sit during the anthem this week because, as he put it, “[t]here’s just a lot going on that people don’t want to talk about, and I feel like us as athletes, we’re looked at as role models.”
Tavarres, who nobody in the city had ever heard of until today, let’s be honest, continued:
“[It] needs to be done. Will there be backlash? Probably. I don’t think anyone has bought my jersey yet, so I don’t know if it’s going to be burned, but it’s a major issue and I’m definitely going to stand my ground for this one.”
That story was posted just before 2 p.m. on Monday. Nearly two hours later, Tavarres changed his decision. Well, his agent did.
Even then, football and money trump convictions. And this is a difficult decision for any player, and a difficult conversation for us, which is why we need to have it.
We need to come together as a community, in Philadelphia and around the country, to work to make this country a better place for everyone, not just for those who are used to living with privilege.
We all know the game is rigged. No, not the game of NFL football — that’s another conversation perhaps for another time — but the game of life in America in 2016. The cards are stacked against those who have gone generations without. For someone with to speak up, or sit down, on their behalf is important. And what comes next is crucial.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz took the opportunity Monday to open the floor to his players during a group meeting. Questions are being asked in White House briefings about Kaepernick’s demonstration.
The conversation is now being had, whether that was Kaepernick’s intent or not. Whether Tavarres sits or stands or, heck, gets cut before the game or not.
The Eagles are one of 32 teams in the NFL dealing with this situation now. Players all over the league will soon be following Kaepernick’s lead, while others will understandably denounce him in public. And in a way, that’s what this is all about, and what is great about our freedoms. We can all have them, even when we disagree.