September 2, 2016

The Curious Case of Colin Kaepernick

Last night, Colin Kaepernick, back-up quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, took the field in a pre-season game in San Diego to a chorus of boos. The boos were the result of Kaepernick’s recent decision to remain seated during the playing of the national anthem prior to his team’s games.  A child of a mixed-race couple, who was adopted by a white couple, Kaepernick says his decision is a protest. He says he will not stand to honor the flag of a nation where people of color are oppressed and discriminated against, and his protest yesterday was in a city with a large military presence.  Cue the outrage machine.

Many have said that Kaepernick’s protest is disrespectful to the nation.  Others say it is disrespectful to the military, though this opinion is not ubiquitous.  (Ever since people woke up and realized that maybe veterans returning from Vietnam should receive decent treatment, the military has become the national sacred cow, draped with laurels and a path of rose petals at every turn. Don’t get me wrong. I believe our service personnel and veterans deserve the ceremonial accolades they get, but I’d be willing to bet most of them would give those up for a genuinely functioning and well-funded Veterans’ Administration.  But I digress.) The long and short is that Kaepernick has pissed off a lot of people with his protest.

But that’s really sort of what protests are supposed to do. If a protest doesn’t lead to some discomfort, it’s not really much of a protest. I think the question to ask is whether Kaepernick’s protest is really driving home his point, and, unfortunately, I don’t think it is.  The NFL wraps itself in the flag and dresses itself with the imagery and lexicon of militarism and warfare more so than any other professional sports league in the world.  It’s also a league where conformity is king–players can be fined if their socks slip or their jerseys come untucked–and the kind of stand-out protest Kaepernick is engaging in, one that can be perceived as striking at all that Joe Sixpack holds dear, is bound to raise some ire but probably not the right kind.  Because ever since Kaepernick’s protest became front-page news, we haven’t been talking about oppression or inequality or justice.  We’ve been talking about Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick is exercising his First Amendment right to speak out, and that’s a good thing. He also says he plans to donate $1 million to social justice groups, and that’s a good thing, too. But what’s not so good is clouding the issue by provoking incendiary reactions.  In short, know your audience. Winning hearts and minds, not just getting attention, is the ultimate goal here.