The national anthem is quickly becoming a lightning rod of controversy for American athletes. Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas was hounded by the media for what was deemed inappropriate and unpatriotic conduct when she did not place her hand over her heart for the national anthem in Rio. On Friday, San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the national anthem before San Francisco’s third preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, and social media was quick to explode with criticism of Kaepernick.
These reactions, while understandable to a point, only serve to prove both Douglas and Kaepernick’s larger points about American sports and society as a whole. The first glaring issue many sports fans have is the desire for sports to remain free from politics, even though that is impossible. Almost every aspect of sports is political in some way or another, from Congress granting anti-trust exemptions to Major League Baseball in the early 1900s to owners continually demanding that cities and states fund stadiums.Hell, the fact that we play the national anthem before every single sporting event makes sports at least somewhat political. Fans are all too eager to lobby politicians when it comes to spending tax dollars on a stadium but are loath to listen to an athlete’s opinion on something social or political when it differs from their own. While one can reasonably argue that those are different forms of politicking, it is politicking nonetheless. Therefore, the issue fans really have is not that sports should be divorced from politics but rather how specifically that marriage should function and, most importantly, which parties are given a voice that will be heard and respected.
The next issue is consistency and context. In Douglas’ case, she was not even protesting anything or trying to make a political statement. The fact that she felt compelled to apologize on social media to the rabid Twittersphere is embarrasing, because she has nothing for which to apologize. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that she did. In that case, the internet was oddly silent when Michael Phelps failed to place his hand over his heart before receiving one of his medals. There were crickets when American shot putters Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs, who are both white, had their hands at their sides as the anthem played before they received their medals.
At this point, the double-standard against Douglas and black athletes should seem clear; if Douglas were wrong, Phelps and the shot putters were as well, yet they were immune from the same criticism that compelled Douglas to apologize and break down in tears privately.This leads into the larger point that Kaepernick was trying to make about the state of blacks and other persons of color in American society.
Though Kaepernick specifically alluded to police violence against those groups, the similarities with the criticism of Gabby Douglas still hold, because part of the “oppression” that Kaepernick specifically referred to is the ordeal that groups of color go through when they exercise basic constitutional rights, such as their right to free speech or equal protection under the law. People can reasonably disagree with Kaepernick’s choice, but to vilify it so harshly points to a larger problem with sports fans: we do not actually care when athletes voice their opinions; we only care when those opinions are different from our own. When they do, it is time to act and retort.
In addition to being ignorant of basic civics, much of the criticism also incorrectly assumes that, because Kaepernick is an athlete and extremely wealthy relative to the vast majority of the population, he is somehow immune from the prejudices that many people of color, regardless of their personal or professional status, face on a regular basis.
For the better part of his adult life, Kaepernick, like most professional athletes, has been viewed as a cog in a machine and a means to an end. I believe that all sports fans are guilty of this to varying degrees, but that only reinforces Kaepernick’s view of the current state of our country and what our flag represents.
He may have millions of dollars and a glamorous professional career, but, by the nature of the business that is professional sports and how he has been viewed by fans, the media and society at large since his late adolescence, he can relate to many of the victims of police violence and people of color as a whole whose lives often did not or do not seem to matter.
While these social problems and arguments may seem complex, the solution is actually quite simple. If people gave Kaepernick, Douglas and all athletes and people regardless of their skin color or societal status the same respect and dignity that they give to the American flag or the national anthem, we would all be immeasurably better off.
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