Amidst the most partisan and acrimonious election in decades, if not centuries, there was one man in America who made a political statement in a different way.
While the air was filled with bluster, insults and bellowing, this man spoke in quiet tones and with one simple act.
That man was San Francisco 49ers’ football player Colin Kaepernick.
On Sept. 1, 2016, before the 49ers last exhibition game against the San Diego Chargers, Kaepernick went to one knee as the national anthem began. He later explained his action to reporters: “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.”
Kaepernick’s act and words incensed many. He was broadly condemned by irate patriots who called him a coward, loser and much worse. But those fellow citizens, though entitled to their opinion, might not be as right as they think they are.
First, the NFL exploits patriotism in the cheesiest form of borrowed equity ever practiced. Sure, there is a lump in the throat as the fighter jets fly by while the last anthem notes soar and the flag covers the entire field, but there is something false about all the pageantry.
Standing on any given NFL field are some of the strongest, fastest, toughest men in our country. Yet, as best as we can currently tell, out of the 53-man rosters of the NFL’s 32 teams, only Alejandro Villenueva of the Pittsburgh Steelers has served in the U.S. military. In the general U.S population, some 22 million Americans, or 6.9 percent of citizens, have served. Yet of the 1,692 active players in the NFL, there is only Army Ranger Villanueva. That means the NFL percentage of military veterans is 0.05896 percent.
So … how patriotic is that?
Second, regarding the charge of cowardice, there are few things short of combat that require more physical courage and mental toughness than playing in the NFL, especially in the quarterback position. If those accusing Kaepernick of cowardice were forced to play in an NFL game, they would go fetal on the first play and remain in said position until the bleachers were being cleaned.
And then there is the motivation behind Kaepernick’s act— justice for all.
There is also the general assumption that if you wear a flag on your lapel and sing the anthem loudest that you are more patriotic than the next citizen. Some of those with a flag on their jacket also think they are uniquely qualified to determine who else is a patriot and who isn’t, ignorant of the fact that some of the least patriotic citizens in our history have wrapped themselves in the flag while walking all over our Constitution. Joe McCarthy and your average KKK member come to mind.
One of the other rabid responses toward Kaepernick has been the accusation that he is showing disrespect for the members of our armed forces. Kaepernick, who graduated from high school with a 4.0 GPA, has thoughtfully and patiently explained how he holds servicemen and women in high regard. If you take that charge against Kaepernick to its logical conclusion, then any protest is an act of disrespect toward veterans, never mind that the birth of our nation, flag and anthem resulted from an act of protest.
And then there is the motivation behind Kaepernick’s act—justice for all.
It is shocking how scads of white folk, who have never lived in a black neighborhood, lob withering attacks at Kaepernick without ever considering that being black in America is not always a pleasant thing, and that injustices occur with regularity, sometimes with fatal results. Open any American history book. We have a long record of viewing black lives as disposable.
And finally, there is the concept of freedom. The fact that Kaepernick can kneel in protest without being imprisoned or executed by the state is the greatest beauty of America. That very freedom is what our servicemen and women protect. And yet so many bellow when that freedom is actually practiced.
So as the Super Bowl and its theatrics loom before us, remember that when the anthem is sung and the B-1 bombers fly overhead, you are perfectly within your rights to remain seated on your couch. Smart, good Americans, all residents of the land of the free and home of the brave, will think nothing less of you.
God Bless America.
Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.