All the while, people are up in arms about disrespect to the flag, disrespect to the military, disrespect to the country and how football games are not the time or place to do such a thing. And then other people use it as their chance to bash Trump and blame everybody who voted for him for everything that's happened, while others still talk about how unified the NFL was and how great it was to see everyone standing together.
Meanwhile, what got lost in the shuffle is the man who started it all more than a year ago and what he was really wanting to draw attention to. The man is Colin Kaepernick and the issues he wanted attention drawn to were police brutality and racial inequality.
Let's start off with the method of protest he chose: Originally, Kaepernick sat on the bench during the anthem in 2016 NFL preseason games. It wasn't until the third week of the preseason that a few reporters covering the game noticed what he was doing and asked him about it. It led to Kaepernick having a conversation with former NFL player and Army Green Beret Nate Boyer, after which Kaepernick decided to take a knee during the anthem instead.
Getting to the method of protest, I have heard multiple claims about why Kaepernick shouldn't have engaged in that method of protest, for which I have the same response to them all: The only way protests become effective is when they make other people uncomfortable and force them to consider an issue that they'd prefer not to discuss. More to the point, protests only force change when they start violating norms, customs and even laws in the process of airing grievances.
Nearly everyone today agrees that slavery is wrong, but back when it was legal in a number of states, federal laws were passed regarding fugitive slaves and such laws were broken by abolitionists to help slaves escape their masters. Few today would insist that women shouldn't be allowed to vote, but there was a time when they weren't and, when some tried to do so, they were arrested and jailed. Those who argue that laws requiring blacks and whites be segregated in restaurants should be reinstated are few in number, but when that was the law, blacks engaged in sit-ins in defiance of the laws.
And if you want the ultimate example of what protest is all about, look no further than the events that led to the American Revolution, namely the Boston Tea Party, in which those involved had a legitimate complaint, but resorted to disgusing themselves as Mohawk Indians and illegally boarding a ship, seizing the tea in the cargo hold and dumping it overboard. In today's environment, we'd be more likely to scold those who engage in such actions and want them punished, regardless of their reasons, yet then we turn around and hail those before us who performed those actions prior to 1776 as patriots.
If you go back and look in the history books, you will find that these actions made a lot of people uncomfortable. Some were saying that there had to be a better way to get a point across. And there were plenty who opposed not only the actions taken, but the viewpoints to begin with.
There is no way to sugarcoat this, folks: Many protests throughout the history of the United States were not demonstrations in which everybody stayed within a lane and didn't do anything to disturb the peace. But it was those protests that did more to force leaders to re-evaluate positions -- and even then, many were reluctant to do so.
And this also needs to be stressed: Those who participated in such protests knew they were risking a lot, ranging from their jobs to their families to their livelihoods, even risking their lives. They did not do the equivalent of what most of us do today to protest, which is running our thumbs over a smartphone and sending those words to a social media account. The tactic I just mentioned might make you feel good when you use it, but in reality, it does little to move the needle, simply because it is too easy for people to ignore -- after all, they can control their own social media accounts and tune you out.
Which brings me back to Colin Kaepernick: He understood when he started his protest what he might be risking. Here's where he addressed this, from a transcript in which he was interviewed for the first time he began sitting during the anthem and before his conversation with Boyer and subsequent decision to kneel:
"I think there’s a lot of consequences that come along with this. There’s a lot of people that don’t want to have this conversation. They’re scared they might lose their job. Or they might not get the endorsements. They might not be treated the same way. Those are things I’m prepared to handle. Things that other people might not be ready for. It’s just a matter of where you’re at in your life. Where your mind is at. At this point, I’ve been blessed to be able to get this far and have the privilege of being able to be in the NFL, making the kind of money I make and enjoy luxuries like that. I can’t look in the mirror and see people dying on the street that should have the same opportunities that I've had. And say ‘You know what? I can live with myself.’ Because I can’t if I just watch."
Simply put, Kaepernick was willing to put his job on the line to get his point across. He showed more guts than most of us (myself included) would do to stand up for what he believes in. He remains unemployed by the NFL to this date and I'm sure he's not happy about it. But after reading his above statement from the interview more than a year ago, I suspect he understands that his unemployment with the NFL came with the territory. And while he may not like it, he shows more of a willingness to stand for what he believes in than a lot of us do, as evidenced by those who say you should do these things on your own time or do it in a respectful way -- which are really code words for "don't risk anything for what you believe in."
Indeed, the First Amendment does not apply to private industries, which the NFL certainly is. But the truth is that the playing of the national anthem during an NFL game, or any other sporting event, has always been a political statement. The first time the anthem was playing was during baseball games -- it's not clear when that first happened, but the intent seemed to be to get the crowd cheering. It only became commonplace when the United States entered World War II, at which point nearly every Major League Baseball team did it to get people to rally behind the war effort -- the very definition of a political statement. It may be one you agree with, but just because you agree with it doesn't mean it's no longer political. And given that, at the time, MLB was the top sports organization in the nation, other sports organizations such as the NFL followed suit.
If we're going to be honest about what really gets us up in arms about somebody kneeling during the anthem to protest something, it's that we view sports as our time to come together and be reminded about how much we love our country while getting entertained at the same time. In other words, what we think of as paying respects to our flag and the military is really about making the anthem part of the show.
A football game, or any other sporting event, is not comparable to any formal military ceremony, ranging from the promotion of a soldier in rank to the honoring of the deceased, or an event whose entire purpose is to pay tribute to soldiers, veterans or both, such as Memorial Day ceremonies at cemeteries or a school putting on a program for Veterans Day. I have yet to see any report of Kaepernick, or anyone else for that matter, taking a knee or otherwise protesting during such ceremonies.
But all sporting events were primarily created as a means of providing entertainment, not as a means of honoring the military. That primary purpose has not changed, even as many sporting organizations keep increasing tributes to the military and, in some cases, have accepted money from the Department of Defense. If sporting events were to disappear the next day and everything else stayed the same, the military would carry on. I have no objections to those involved in sports who wish to honor those who serve in the armed forces, but I will never pretend that the primary purpose of sports is anything more than to entertain.
Some will argue that the fact sports are supposed to be there to entertain is exactly why nobody involved with them should get political. But I will repeat that playing the anthem is a political statement. Furthermore, how many of you bat an eye when somebody involved with sports says a statement you agree with? If we're being honest, "stick to sports" is code word for "don't talk unless you tell me what I want to hear." If you really want politics kept out of sports, then you better call out those in sports who make political statements that you agree with as well as those you disagree with and don't just pick and choose when to respond. And you may want to ask yourself whether or not the anthem should be played at all because -- again, a hard truth to be repeated -- playing the anthem was started as a political statement and remains so to this day.
I know there will be plenty of disagreement coming from those who read my words. But that's fine because that's exactly what freedom of speech is all about. My father served in the Vietnam War and I know he doesn't like that people kneel during the anthem. I know my mother well enough that she feels the same way. But I also know plenty of veterans and wives of veterans who do not object to kneeling during the anthem and those who go out of their way to back those who do so. Truth be told, I'm glad to see there is not unanimity among veterans and their wives about this -- if all of them were saying the same thing about this and every other issue we discuss, that's when the red flag needs to be raised. The same thing applies to NFL players or any other group -- when a group all starts thinking the same way about multiple subjects, it's time to ask ourselves what is really going on here.
But what we do need to remember is that we can't be fixated about the anthem, the military, the flag or even what we think about Donald Trump and start associating the practice of kneeling during the anthem with any of those things. All of that distracts from the real issues Colin Kaepernick is trying to bring attention to. That he is willing to go out and support organizations that want to address those issues (along with organizations that don't, but address issues he believes are important to him) says a lot about him -- he's willing to back up his words with actions.
Yet what I am seeing instead are people who are co-opting the practice of kneeling to use it as a means to object to Trump in general, rather than discussing what can be done to address police brutality and what work we need to do to improve racial relations. Going back to the Kaepernick interview transcript, it's clear from his words that both issues are personal to him and that they are the type we can't just shrug our shoulders at and pretend that he must have been guilty of something. From the transcript:
"In your mind, have you been pulled over unjustly or had bad experiences?
CK: Yes, multiple times. I’ve had times where one of my roommates was moving out of the house in college, and because we were the only black people in that neighborhood, the cops got called and we had guns drawn on us. Came in the house, without knocking, guns drawn on my teammates and roommates. So I have experienced this. People close to me have experienced this. This isn’t something that’s a one-off case here or a one-off case there. This has become habitual. This has become a habit. So this is something that needs to be addressed."
Again, I will not sugarcoat this: There is ZERO reason for police officers to go straight to pulling guns out on people without bothering to assess the situation first. I will be fair to the police officers on one point, however -- those actions happen because those who set policies for departments are putting into the minds of officers that everyone must be treated with suspicion, and in particular, if those people happen to be people of color. As uncomfortable as it may be, we can no longer pretend that doesn't happen, and we need to recognize that these are structural issues that are in place as a result of our elected officials or those who were appointed to head up federal and state departments, who are sometimes encouraged by longtime police chiefs and heads of police unions.
I understand that being a police officer is a stressful job and they often put their lives on the line, but the worst thing we can do is give them the impression that they must treat everything like the worst case scenario. All that does is foster distrust between police officers and the communities they are supposed to serve. If we want to improve police work, we need to stop looking at police as those who need to maintain order at all times, but instead work hand in hand with communities to find the best ways to do their jobs. And officers aren't going to be able to do that as long as elected officials and high-ranking government department heads continue implementing policies that tell officers that the people are subjects to rule rather than citizens to serve.
I will add that I can't relate to some of the things Kaepernick talks about because I'm not black. But that's why I take the time to listen to what he and others say, because I want to understand. I refuse to fall into the trap that so many others do, in which they refuse to consider what others are saying and seek out only those who tell them what they want to hear. Of course, a lot of this has to do with the fact that 24-7 news networks want to turn everything into a debate and pander to either a particular audience or whatever drives ratings, people on social media who use it more to get themselves over and fire off one-liners rather than engage in critical thinking, and individuals who are less about activism and more about reminding everyone what a great personality they have.
One of the worst thing we can do is take any individual, current or past, and portray that person as one-dimensional, whether in positive or negative terms. The number who can be described in such simple terms are extremely few, while the rest are complex individuals who have their strengths but key faults, and sometimes fell victim to those faults. Yet rather than look at the entire picture and put together what, most of the time, amounts to a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle, we fall back on describing somebody as the equivalent to a coin flip and asking what we believe is "tails never fails."
Our current president, Donald Trump, understands this and is more than happy to exploit it. And it's easy to say only the Trump voters fell for it, but many who didn't vote for him fell for it as well, because they are the ones who keep retweeting and commenting about his latest endeavors in running his thumbs over his smartphone. Very little critical thinking is happening among those who are supposed to engage in it. 24-7 news has little to do with investigative reporting and more to do with about embracing debate. Social media is less concerned about communication and more about getting yourself over and seeking validation.
So what does that have to do with Colin Kaepernick? Because the more I've read about Kaepernick, the more I see a man who is willing to take the time to research issues and engage in critical thinking, yet does have certain faults like any other human being. But those who keep painting him as a one-dimensional character, regardless of how they paint it, are doing nothing to advance the discussions about the issues he wants to address.
There is no better example than Kaepernick's response to those who asked him about the last Presidential election. He made it clear he couldn't support Trump or Hillary Clinton and chose not to vote. Most who criticized his decision are people who I know very well are Clinton supporters, many who blame anybody but Clinton and Democratic leadership for the outcome of that election. It's true that Clinton and the Democrats do not hold all the responsibility, but they hold part of it, as much as Trump, the Republicans or anybody else does. But I suspect that more of those who criticize Kaepernick for not voting were more concerned about Clinton winning the election than anything else.
But truth be told, Kaepernick's opinion that neither Trump nor Clinton deserved his vote was an opinion shared by many others -- and in some cases, may have been for the same reasons he would not vote for either. I don't know what Kaepernick thinks about others who were running in the Presidential race because it appears nobody asked him about it. Regardless, if Kaepernick truly didn't believe that any Presidential candidate was qualified to address the issues he wanted addressed, then it's his right to not vote. Certainly it's worth asking who he would have supported for President or if he sees somebody who is worthy of running for that office in the future, but it appears nobody has asked him yet.
In fact, Kaepernick has been keeping a low profile for many months. His Twitter feed is mostly him retweeting articles and other tweets that support his views or talk about his movement. I haven't seen any recent articles about him in which he agreed to an interview. And he has made no appearance on TV that I am aware of (then again, I don't watch much TV, so I may be wrong there). From what I have gathered, Kaepernick tends to be a quiet individual and fairly independent.
But perhaps now is a good time for Kaepernick to step forward and remind everybody what his actions were really all about -- especially now that some are choosing to use the act of kneeling as a means to oppose Donald Trump, rather than focus on the issues Kaepernick wants addressed. The worst thing that can happen for the causes Kaepernick supports is to have his gesture co-opted by people who have a bigger agenda in mind.
And it would serve us all well to sit down and have open, honest discussions about police brutality, how department policies can be improved, and what we can do to make more progress on improving racial relations -- true, we have made a few steps, but there are more we can take. And we aren't going to do that by feeding our addictions to 24-7 news networks and social media, regardless of what we watch or who we follow.
I know I'm still debating what steps to take next -- and I'm finding it's not an easy decision to make. But it's one I have to keep reminding myself that I should make. Thus, I'm not going to tell anybody what they need to do in response. But I will say this: Chances are good that whatever people decide to do is going to come at a personal sacrifice -- not in terms of not watching NFL games like some people on both sides are prepared to do, but more like what we praise military members for doing in their jobs and what those in protests before put on the line.
I believe Colin Kaepernick understood that. The question for all Americans is to ask whether they understand it, too.