WORDS: FRED SULLIVAN | ART: DONTE NEAL
“We who believe in freedom cannot rest.”
On August 14, 2016, Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers NFL franchise, sat down while the National Anthem was played before the commencement of this Pre-Season football game.
According to SBNation.com, he also sat for the August 20th game. Both silent protests went virtually unnoticed until a photo of Mr. Kaepernick keeping his seat during the playing of the National Anthem was posted on social media. After speaking with teammate Eric Reid and meeting with former NFL player and retired Army Green Beret Messrs. Reid, Kaepernick decided to kneel instead of sit through the national anthem as a more respectful way to protest police brutality and injustice. In the days, weeks, and months since those initial protests, he has been both celebrated and castigated for his protests—which he used to draw attention to and make statements against the systemic oppression of people of African descent in America through the structures that support police brutality, inequities in the justice system, and economic plunder. He has been joined by other NFL players in his protests and criticized by some existing and former players.
These perceptions have caused many fans to raise their voices in protest on social media, in public, and in boycott of the NFL.
The issue has ignited into a national conversation—bringing forth much debate on the role of the athlete, the role of the conscious consumer in boycott, and the status of the nation as it concerns black and brown people. It has also caused many to raise questions about why Mr. Kaepernick, who opted out of his contract with the 49ers and left the team to become a free agent, has not been signed by another NFL team. Many fans and pundits alike hold the belief that Mr. Kaepernick has demonstrated gameplay sufficient to be a player in the NFL, if not as a starter, definitely as a backup. Though he has had lackluster performances in the time since his early breakout seasons with the 49ers—which include a Super Bowl appearance—Mr. Kaepernick remains unsigned as of Week 4 of the 2017 season. What’s more, several other quarterbacks that are of arguably lesser overall quality are playing and starting in the NFL. These perceptions have caused many fans to raise their voices in protest on social media, in public, and in boycott of the NFL. Their reasoning is that by voicing protest of America, he has been effectively banned from employment and prevented from protesting and playing NFL football.
Many people on our timelines and newsfeeds assert that he has a right to protest, and is right to protest, while also saying that there is a nefarious movement to silence him. Other players have taken the bold steps to support the cause he has raised awareness of in kneeling or sitting in silent protest when the Star Spangled Banner is played. The question is: What happens when Kaepernick is signed? Will all be forgiven? Will those of us who have supported his kneeling simply go back to the status quo? Will he continue to protest? Will the other players then stand?
As some NFL owners join players in demonstrations and in public criticism of the President, are they defending justice, or their “product”?
Have we entered the stage where the protest itself is the important thing, and not the underlying reasons for Kaepernick standing up through kneeling during the national anthem before football games? Like the long history of athletes using their platforms to protest injustice, this protest movement has captured the national attention. For many fans of the sport, especially those who have chosen not to attend games, or watch on television, we may have needed this integration of sport and justice. This disruption of the status quo has forced many to change their perception of consumption and focus on more pressing issues—other than fantasy performance. We must not fall into the trap of thinking the issue is whether or not Mr. Kaepernick, or any of the players who choose to protest as he has, is allowed to play football professionally in the NFL. Yes, Week 4 has officially begun. No, he hasn’t been signed. But, remember the issues at the heart of the matter? They still exist. Society is loathed to return the ill-gotten gains of what Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to as plunder—the wrongs of the past have not been made right, and the injustices that continue are cause for this protest movement.
Now to further complicate the issue, the President Of The United States has used harsh language in his admonishment of Mr. Kaepernick and his allies protesting silently during the National Anthem before football games. Language that was more abrasive than his descriptions of the white supremacists at Charlottesville and the former Grand Dragon of the KKK, David Duke. As some NFL owners join players in demonstrations and in public criticism of the President, are they defending justice, or their “product”?
Mr. Kaepernick has made his choice by boldly claiming that the “freedom and justice for all” is a nice idea, but one that has not been fully realized in America, and he doesn’t seem to be complaining about his lot speaking up for the liberation of people of African descent in America. He had to know that continuing his protests, and subsequently leaving the 49ers would have limited his employment options in the NFL. Professional sports, like many other segments of American society, don’t take too kindly to people who tell a truth that troubles our notions of American greatness. In this age, that many believe is post-truth and post-racism, someone who criticizes the nation for its history of oppression, violence, and plunder, all while the mainstream pretends such never happened, is going to have the powers that be attempt to silence them. A contract to play football is not a victory in the struggle for liberation. Should Mr. Kaepernick play football in the NFL, the struggle for liberation will still continue on. Will we be so satisfied to see #7 return to the field that we forget why this enterprise was first started?
Edited by Myles E. Johnson