(By A. Spruiell/Black)
Fans – important to remember, short for fanatics – have a deep and troubled history of intolerance towards athletes with opinions. The deep hypocrisy of a 36 year old accountant telling LeBron James to pass more, and subsequently demanding he get over somebody spray painting “n*gger” on his house is laughable. The great burden of social activism has never been the most comfortable cross to bear, and in sports particularly, it falls to the most marginalized to take the most dramatic stances. And in taking those stances, they open themselves up to criticism from those who would have them exist in a vacuum. Even more strange, at the time we give these people none of the reverence they’re owed, but seem more than willing to do so when the consequences have disappeared. And even that seems borne from contrition rather than understanding. Muhammad Ali, for example, was universally revered and championed at the time of his death, a stark contrast to his treatment in the 1960s. The complicated racial, religious and economic history of our nation can’t help but to seep into our national past-times, but we – as sports fans – are averse to acknowledging it for fear that we’ll lose our escape.
And never has this confrontation been more public than in the saga of Colin Kaepernick.
After not dressing for the first two preseason games of the 2016 season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was spotted sitting on the bench during the national anthem during the team’s third. When being asked why after the game, Kaepernick announced that he would not be standing for the national anthem throughout the season. He cited the current American racial climate, militarized police tactics, and what he saw as systemic discrimination against people of color in the name of the United States.
Kaepernick was joined in his protests by people from around the sports world including his own teammates, members of several other NBA and NFL teams, US soccer star Megan Rapinoe, college bands, anthem singers, and several high school teams. He was featured on the cover of TIME magazine, and put under a microscope for the entire season.
Though he modified slightly from sitting to kneeling, Kaepernick was resolute in the courage of his convictions and continued his protest into the regular season. The public response was swift, albeit mixed. Many – especially members of the black community – applauded Kaepernick for risking his own livelihood and brand to speak out about issues affecting those less fortunate than himself. In fact, he had the highest selling jersey in the NFL at the start of last season. Others saw a more cynical, perhaps even sinister, motivation: a player with declining skills in the last year of his contract, desperate to make waves. So, in an attempt to remain relevant rather than be released, he uses a highly politicized issue as a springboard and shield.
Perhaps demonstrating the need for and importance of Kaepernick’s protest, this story has managed to last for the entire year since he made his first statement. That longevity belies the story’s importance in a world where the news cycle seemingly resets itself every 36 hours. With Kaepernick a free agent, and many teams seemingly unwilling to sign him, the question now turns to whether he sacrificed his career for the cause.
Most recently, the Ravens brought Kaepernick in for a workout and their owner, Steven Bisciotti, despite reports that he was blocking the signing, had this to say: “We’re very sensitive to it and we’re monitoring it, and we’re still, as (General Manager) Ozzie (Newsome) said, ‘scrimmaging it’. So pray for us.”
Pray for the Ravens? Really? I’m pretty sure Ray Lewis has got that one covered. The same Ray Lewis who went on trial as a murder suspect in 2001. The same Ray Lewis that was found to be taking illegal deer antler spray enhancements before the 2015 Super Bowl. The same Ray Lewis that, just this week, told Colin to let his play do the talking. THAT Ray Lewis.
I don’t consider myself a particularly naive person, so I can understand why people would be, and remain, upset about this issue. It is easy to conceive of why a team might balk at signing Kaepernick with a view from the surface only. It’s said – or argued, depending on your temperament – that we stand during the anthem to show reverence for those that sacrificed their lives for this country. So, any act that would appear to denigrate that could be met with disrespect. But how close is that to reality? There are multiple veterans cited as saying that what Kaepernick is doing is exactly what they fought for. Nobody laid down their life for the lyrics, but what they represent, and that distinction gets lost in the vitriol.
The tradition of the national anthem playing before sporting events is not as long and revered as people would have you believe. It didn’t become a tradition until the early 1900s, a full 100 years after the song was written, when bandleader John Phillip Sousa found it odd that the United States never had an anthem to play in contests against other countries.
Be honest: Do you know who wrote the anthem? It was Francis Scott Key in 1814. He included the line “land of the free…” while also stating that African slaves in America were “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.” That would explain these lines in the rarely cited or sung second verse:
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave
This country’s history is as much about the sacrifice of our servicemen as it is about those who suffered for racial equality. America is sustained by heroic sacrifice in the name of country, but she was built on imperialism and slave labor. Accepting that truth is part of the path to rectifying the mistake. Denying it is at the very least willfully disingenuous and, at worst, a purposeful disregard for the humanity of others. Your average NFL fan would rather not confront that fact during the 8+ hours he spends watching football during fall and winter Sundays. This is their escape, their refuge, their hiding place. In their minds, to be confronted by the harsh reality of the privilege and discrimination that still runs rampant through this country is like being shown Pride and Prejudice when you expected Die Hard. It’s a fine approach, but the main problem with that is just because you don’t want something to happen does not make it so. Just because you want to avoid talking about something does not make it go away. Just ask any divorced couple on Earth.
This country’s history is as much about the sacrifice of our servicemen as it is about those who suffered for racial equality. America is sustained by heroic sacrifice in the name of country, but she was built on imperialism and slave labor.
Kaepernick is not OJ Simpson, or Greg Hardy, or Rae Carruth, or Ray Rice. Roger Goodell didn’t ask for prayers when deciding Rice’s suspension. The Ravens certainly weren’t worried, introducing Rice to a standing ovation before the infamous elevator tape became public. Jerry Jones wasn’t overly concerned about offending anyone when he signed Greg Hardy. John Mara didn’t seem to give letters much weight when re-signing HABITUAL domestic abuser John Brown. Michael Vick went to an actual federal penitentiary for dog-fighting, and came back into the league after a three year absence, despite widespread protests. And now he has the audacity to tell Kaepernick he’d be better off if he cut his hair? Kaepernick has committed no crime, has never run afoul of the league’s substance abuse policy, and, contrary to the comfortable narrative, never once proved a distraction for his teammates, even being voted the winner of the 49ers Len Elshmont Award. Some would say he remains unsigned because his play has regressed. I would counter that Kaepernick was certainly better than Ryan Mallet and Ryan Fitzpatrick, both of whom are currently on a roster. Through last season, his statistics were markedly above even other starters including Jay Cutler and Brock Osweiler. But, for some reason, only Kaepernick has been treated as though he’s wiping his feet with a quilt made by orphans after stomping their puppy to death.
For a league with an intense image problem, the NFL seems most concerned about the one player who most exemplifies the “standards of the shield” they espouse so often. So, what’s really the league’s problem with Kaepernick? If it’s not his play, and it’s not his attitude, why isn’t he on a team right now? Look no further than the NFL’s recent decision to end their partnership with the National Institute of Health this week. After completing a recent study, the NIH announced that out of the 200 NFL player brains studied, 197 had signs of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). And that was followed by the news that the NIH would be ending their partnership with the NFL, leaving more than $16 million on the table due to league interference in their studies.
I know that I’m personally much more uncomfortable watching football knowing these men are literally killing themselves than I ever would be with a man kneeling during the anthem. Within that context, the league quashing any kind of notable personality or superfluous story makes sense. It’s much easier to rationalize someone hurting themselves for your benefit when you haven’t the first clue about their life away from football. I’m sure most meat eaters are comfortable with their choice, but if every side of beef in a grocery store had the cow’s name on it, people might think twice. I’m not saying that the league is purposefully blackballing Colin Kaepernick in the interest of fooling anyone, but I AM saying that they’re not particularly worried about whether or not he’s given a fair shake because it’s not in their best interest for the story to persist. If Kaepernick disappeared from public life tomorrow, there would be no hand wringing in the league office. None.
Kaepernick isn’t even the first athlete to take a stand of this magnitude. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, the three point artist formerly known as Chris Jackson, was, for all intents and purposes, an inconsequential player in the 1990s NBA. He never played on a championship team or completed a full 82 game season and his most notable career achievement was winning the 1993 Most Improved Player Award, a prize that you couldn’t name the last five winners of if I paid you to.
After being drafted by the Denver Nuggets out of LSU, Chris Jackson converted to Islam, and later changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Abdul-Rauf’s career took a turn for the controversial when he refused to stand for the national anthem during the 1996 season. Citing the United States’ history of tyranny and oppression, domestic and abroad, Abdul-Rauf would remain seated during the anthem until he was suspended by the league on March 12, 1996. He stood to lose almost $30,000 per game missed, and was coerced into a compromise two days later – Abdul-Rauf would stand for the anthem, but could bow his head and close his eyes in silent prayer. The suspension was lifted after just one game. But, he was traded from the Nuggets to the Kings following the season, and would be out of the NBA a mere two years later.
“Of course you hear things. I have to hold back and say I can’t take it personally. I can’t get mad at this individual and want to tell him off. What’s going to be solved?”
– Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf
Which brings us back to Kaepernick.
Though not accompanied by the same religious awakening, Kaepernick’s recent history closely mirrors that of Abdul-Rauf in 1996. Abdul-Rauf was called a traitor in public – and undoubtedly much worse in private – but remained resolute in his beliefs, and practical about his eventual aims, stating “Of course you hear things. I have to hold back and say I can’t take it personally. I can’t get mad at this individual and want to tell him off. What’s going to be solved?”
So what does Kaepernick have to say about the controversy? Not very much. He is not concerned – at least, outwardly – with any of the criticism for his stance, instead making sure his actions speak for him. Kaepernick and his foundation pledged to donate $1 million back into the community and so far, have made good on that promise. On top of a mission trip to Ghana this summer, below is the list and amounts of Kaepernick’s donations since his protest began, totaling $700,000 to date:
Black Youth Project – $25,000
Silicon Valley De-Bug – $25,000
Causa Justa/Just Cause – $25,000
Urban Underground – $25,000
Mothers Against Police Brutality – $25,000
Gathering for Justice – $25,000
Communities United for Police Reform – $25,000
I Will Not Die Young Campaign – $25,000
UCSF for The Mni Wiconi Health Clinic Partnership at Standing Rock – $50,000
Appetite for Change – $25,000
Southsiders Organized for Unite and Liberation (SOUL) – $25,000
Black Veterans for Social Justice – $25,000
350.org – $25,000
Center for Reproductive Rights – $25,000
CHIRLA (Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles) – $25,000
Meals on Wheels – $50,000
Somalia Famine Relief – $50,000
Life After Hate – $50,000
Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle – $25,000
SilenceIsViolence – $25,000
Assata’s Daughters – $25,000
H.O.M.E. (Helping Oppressed Mothers Endure) – $25,000
Grassroots Leadership – $25,000
American Friends Service Committee – $25,000
I’ve spent the last 2000 words telling you what I think, what owners think, what other players think, but haven’t provided anything from Kaepernick himself. Seems fitting that I let him have the final word:
“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….It’s something that can unify this team. It’s something that can unify this country. If we have these real conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people. If we have these conversations, there’s a better understanding of where both sides are coming from.”