The Threat of Colin Kaepernick
by: Thabiti Lewis (WSU Vancouver)
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”― James Baldwin
Last week marked the 15th anniversary of 911, and America’s most popular sport, football, was supposed to showcase American patriotism. But the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, dampened the celebration as he continued his refusal to stand during the national anthem. A growing number of players from teams across the league have joined him in this symbolic gesture to protest American racial oppression and police violence against black and brown citizens. Although not everyone is in agreement, it has sparked a dialogue about the sordid history of the national anthem, the history of athlete activism, violence against black and brown citizens, and the role of patriotism in sports.
Our world is increasingly fraught with weak definitions and incoherent explanations of ourselves to each other. Enter Colin Kaepernick to tell the world precisely who he is and why he is compelled to sit during the national anthem. His supremely articulated position created a stir in an age of social media and texting that has left us with a society accustomed to a cacophony of sound bites and slogans. Seeking the meme, the media has tried to spin his meaning into an affront of the military rather than his clearly specified purpose: to protest that black and brown lives seem not to matter in America.
The first time we attended a professional game over a decade ago with our children my refusal to stand during the national anthem shocked my daughters. They were afraid that I would get in trouble. Some people stared but did not bother to say anything. The same issues of social and racial injustice past and present that fuel Kaepernick, keeps others in their seats as well during this ritual. It was James Baldwin who said, “It is very nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.” Sports culture engenders “group-think,” which can be a good or bad thing depending on the situation.
In this situation it is not good. As more players think independently they are pondering injustices. To keep the populace from thinking independently the media has strategically shifted Kaepernick’s intent. Instead of us focusing his stance against the lack of agency for black and brown lives in America, the question has become whether he is disrespecting and rejecting the military. It seems not to matter that Kaepernick has made it clear that his discontent, is with the falsehood of full American citizenship rights for all when it comes to black and brown people.
In the wake of such spin Kaepernick’s concern with the oppression of “black people and people of color” has been drowned from the conversation. Why? Because the jingoism affiliated with American sports, football in particular, is good for business. Football is currently the most lucrative sports industry in America. In 2015 the NFL and its 32 teams earned $12 billion—a 14 percent increase from the previous year!
To protect the bottom line football media and sports media coverage has labored to obfuscate the true nature of Kaepernick’s protest. By turning the public against Kaepernick’s gesture, the hope is to create a hysteria or collective mania that we might otherwise associate with McCarthyism. The reconstruction and muddying of the lexicon of his stance was achieved by recasting it as anti-military. What was unexpected was that Kaepernick’s jersey would become the top-selling NFL jersey because of this controversy.
All the while the media assault persists and Kaepernick continues to remind the media that: “this isn’t a protest against men and women of the military,” and that “People are getting lost in what the true message is and don’t want to address…those issues. That’s really the problem.” Indeed, Kaepernick is correct to hope that “people would be as outraged about the murders that are happening in the street as they are about a protest.”
The entire situation irradiates the more tempered, nuanced and explicitly heard frequencies of bullying and jingoism in sporting spaces. When did sports become apolitical spaces? Who determines that athletes are not expected to bring important issues to the forefront and are limited to entertaining the public?
It is a contradiction to assert that Kaepernick’s vocation can be used to divert the public from thinking about things that matter, but not to educate the public or encourage them to think critically. Kaepernick’s actions are very American. In fact, the epitome of Americanism is to speak-up and demand that the promise of America fairly extends to all our citizens.
If sporting events can be used to conjure jingoism then surely such spaces can also function as locations where we demand and promote American ideals such as equity, justice, and democracy. If we were to follow the money in football the politics would be shocking.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
In the series “The Wire” the cop Lester Freamon said, “You start to follow the money and you don’t know where […] its going to take you.” So let us follow some of the money in the NFL and see where it takes us. The first place it takes us is to a 2015 congressional report revealing that the Department of Defense had paid $5.4 million to NFL teams between 2011 and 2014 to stage on-field patriotic ceremonies. But that is not all, between 2013 and 2015 the National Guard paid NFL teams $6.7 million for similar displays.
Say what? The unspoken truth is that Kaepernick’s consciousness-raising behavior threatens the patriotism the government is paying good tax dollars to procure. His refusal to stand is slowing catching fire among NFL players; threatening the NFL’s economic interests and thwarting the government’s plan to purchase patriotism. I want more sports reporters to ask citizens how they feel that millions of their tax dollars are going to NFL teams to cultivate jingoism at sporting events. Better yet, ask owners to explain their behavior or ask fans and players how they feel about teams taking that money.
But those questions will never be asked because sports are supposed to reduce the populace’s capacity to think. Or as Noam Chomsky has famously detailed, “sports demand irrational submission to authority” and engender “group cohesion.” Yet Kaepernick, like Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Billy Jean King, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, John Carlos, Tommie Smith and countless others before him have shown, sports can also raise the populace’s consciousness around issues of human rights and equity. It is also possible for sports to politicize the public in a manner that does not favor the elites.
The unfair mass media coverage of Kaepernick reveals how much mass media are an echo of private financial and political power. The power brokers are noticeably rattled that Kaepernick maintains his stance and has the insight to make statements like: “a lot of players that really feel the same way…[are] nervous about consequences that come along with [protest].” Indeed, he is also correct that such anxiety is “a tragic situation where players aren’t comfortable speaking what’s on their mind and what’s right because they’re afraid of consequences that come along with it.” It is indeed “not an ideal environment for anybody” and in some ways contradicts what standing for the flag is supposed to represent.
The way Kaepernick’s true purpose has been twisted confirms that his behavior threatens the economic, social and political interests of powerful and elite entities. But what has been most striking about the mass media assault on him has been how he has been attacked, but not once has there been constructive refutation of Kaepernick’s assertion that black and brown lives are not enjoying all the citizenship rights America promises. Instead the strategy has been to elide with diversion tactics such as: he is not black and does not know these hardships, his girlfriend is a Muslim, or his approach is wrong. But what has been noticeably absent is a coherent rebuttal of the rationale fueling his discontent and protest.
The NFL is a very wealthy corporation (each team earns over $325 million annually) with private financial and political power (many of the owners are captains of industry with personal relationships with politicians). To protect those interests Kaepernick had to be demonized as he threatened the brand and huge sports market-share the NFL wields as the biggest church in America on Sundays. Therefore, remixing Kaepernick’s true message and purpose is good for business.
However Kaepernick’s clear articulation of his purpose is bad for business. James Baldwin once said that, “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.” When Kaepernick thoughtfully articulated 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” he became a threat. He became Al-Qaeda to the NFL and the rest of the sports industry. And while not a single word in his explanation above makes any reference to him I hating the military, his stance continues to be spun as anti-military and anti-police because the issue of black and brown oppression is harder to rebuke than a story about a player being anti-military and police.
Allow me to dig a bit deeper. The cognitive dissonance the national anthem dilemma is causing is the reason the media has maligned him. His consciousness raising action threatens the notion of America that many come to know it. In the process this threatens the market shares of a multi-billion dollar franchise (also known as the NFL). To be more frank, negative publicity is a liability to the brand known as the NFL and the brand known as America.
The strategic response Kaepernick and other athletes that might try to follow him reveals the sports industry as a factory for the mass production of intellectual and moral conformity. Players are told how to act, what to say and think– fans too.
Athletes are, like most of us, cautious and risk-averse so Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the anthem, which is not compulsory in the NFL, should be applauded. His refusal to stand gives us an opportunity to probe very important issues about patriotism, namely its role in sports culture. If the military misrepresentation continues, scholars and journalists must start referencing America’s less than stellar history of treating black and brown soldiers—past and current. And if the issue is dishonoring soldiers then we must take liberties to ask fans how they feel that many veterans are not receiving proper medical care post service for things like post-traumatic stress or job opportunities. Is that American? Does that dishonor their service? But I digress.
Hopefully what scholars and moral sports journalist can shift the discussion toward how Kaepernick’s act fits squarely in the very rich tradition of African American culture and politics, which has historically culled innovative and improvisational ways to use media to dramatize movements against social ills and injustice. Absent true power African Americans have been forced to continually utilize drama to engage progressive politics. Two well-documented examples were Curt Flood’s fight for free agency and Muhammad Ali’s struggle during the Vietnam War. One cleared the way for pay raises and rights athletes in all sports and the other prevail after three years. In both cases the position of the athletes proved to be a moral and sensible one.
In essence, the situation makes us realize the double standard and pressure placed upon professional athletes. They are role models when it is convenient and told to shut up and just be athletes when it is not. American sports are a pawn for cultivating and propagating blind jingoism.
In the end Kaepernick is similar to James Baldwin who, disgusted and fed up with racism in America, famously exclaimed: “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Although Kaepernick has compromised and taken a knee, hopefully he knows this will not be easy, nor will it be quick. The journey for change is long and there will be more obstacles to come. Hopefully he has the discipline, persistence, and faith to continue to sit or kneel to encourage America to be better. Indeed, not everything we face can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced. Whether Kaepernick went about this in the correct manner is debateable. What is not up for debate is that sitting or kneeling and facing injustice to make one’s country better is nobler than standing and doing or saying nothing at all.
Thabiti Lewis is associate professor at WSU Vancouver. He is author of Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America (Third World Press). He can be reached at: http://www.ballersofthenewschool.com