During a preseason game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers on Aug. 26, Colin Kaepernick deliberately went against convention and sat as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played before the kickoff. Kaepernick’s motive was clear. The 49ers quarterback told the National Football League Media in a postgame interview that he was “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 said.
Backlash as well as support for Kaepernick’s method of protest came swiftly. Much of the negative reactions to Kaepernick’s protest criticized the quarterback’s actions for being disrespectful; opponents argue that there are appropriate times, places and targets for political discontent, but the national anthem being played at a professional sports game is not one of them.
But what exactly is so reprehensible about Kaepernick’s method of protest? What line of propriety did Kaepernick cross that has earned him the ire of a great swath of the American public?
Is it a matter of patriotic symbols being off-limits from political protest? Historically, this area of American life has proved to be ripe vehicles for demonstrating political discontent. Flag burnings were common throughout the 1960s as opposition to the Vietnam War mounted. One American burned a flag to protest policies under the Reagan administration, which led to a controversial Supreme Court case that categorized flag burning as a protected form of symbolic speech. More recently, in 2014, 100 students in a Denver high school refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to show their objection to the phrase “one nation, under God.” Choosing not to sing the national anthem is hardly a stretch from any of these cases.
Is it a matter of sports being a space of American life that is exempt from political statements? Quite the contrary: whether it was the Phoenix Suns protesting an Arizona law regarding immigration by donning Los Suns jerseys, five members of the St. Louis Rams entering a game with their hands up echoing the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” movement or even our Georgetown men’s basketball team becoming the first collegiate team to don “I Can’t Breathe” shirts, American sports history is littered with athletes taking political stances of varying degrees of societal approval.
Is it, then, that Kaepernick’s protest meet at the intersection of sports and symbols of the United States — two expressions of American unity — that makes it so apparently repulsive? Even in that realm, Kaepernick is not the first athlete who challenged a symbol of American unity to bring attention to an issue of racial injustice in the United States.
“We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight.”
What then should we make of Kaepernick’s actions in the context of American history? Setting the effectiveness of his protest aside, has Kaepernick breached a line of decency by making a political controversy out of the national anthem at a football game?
Is respect for the United States and its armed forces defined solely by unconditional support of symbolic representations thereof? Or can respect for a country and the military encompass Kaepernick’s endeavor to show Americans that the very liberties that soldiers have fought to protect are, according to him, being poorly upheld?
I ask these questions today because during a preseason NFL game on Friday, Aug. 26, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to remain seated for the national anthem. In doing so, Kaepernick went against contemporary notions of patriotism in order to call attention to the fact that America made promises of liberty and justice for all, but failed to make that dream a reality for many, and that people have unjustly paid for their country’s failure with their lives.
And what could be more respectful of American values than standing up — or, in this case, sitting down — for that?
Kara Avanceña is a senior in the College. The Front Runners is a shared column and appears every Tuesday.
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