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Colin Kaepernick and the Dilemma of Socially-Conscious Black Athletes

AP 49ERS KAEPERNICK FOOTBALL S FBN FILE USA CA

As you’ve probably heard by now, last Friday, San Francisco 49ers quarterback (as of this writing) Colin Kaepernick made headlines when he refused to stand up for the national anthem prior to a preseason game.   According to Kaepernick, he acted in protest of “a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.”

His actions may as well have been manna from heaven to bloggers (perhaps myself included?), program directors of sports talk radio stations across the country, or anyone who has anything to gain from someone who has an opinion on the matter, and certainly, there isn’t a dearth of opinion on this matter.

Of these opinions, I’ve heard a rather common refrain from talking heads on TV and the radio, callers, and tweeters, and that was that while Kaepernick had the right not to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner, he shouldn’t have made his point in that specific fashion.  Other opinions were more extreme, to varying degrees.

Maybe you should be more worried about losing your job to Blaine Gabbert than protesting police brutality.

You’re rich, so what do you know about oppression?

That flag and that anthem represents those that died for our freedom, so you shouldn’t disrespect that.

If you don’t like it here, you’re free to leave the country.

In other words, “shut up and play.”

With the events Friday night, Kaepernick adds his name to a list of Black athletes who have spoken up about controversial social issues.  We won’t know the long-term effects of his stance for possibly months with regards to his playing career, but considering that he had lost his job as starting quarterback last year and could fail to make San Francisco’s opening day roster this year, he could possibly jeopardize his career.  His responses to questions from the media on Sunday seem to indicate that he is prepared for any and all potential backlash from sponsors to NFL general managers to fellow players.

Peter King of Sports Illustrated wrote a piece about the issue, and it included a two-question Twitter poll: whether Kaepernick should have the right to sit during the anthem, and whether he was right in doing so.  After two hours and thousands of responses, the first question’s results were 51-49% in favor of “yes,” and the second question came back “no” by a 66-34% margin.  The specifics of the second question aren’t known, perhaps due to the technical limitations of Twitter, because it could be construed as “is Kaepernick right that people of color are oppressed in this country?” or “is Kaepernick right to use the national anthem as his means of protest?”, and both questions can have distinctly different answers.  I could go on about Kaepernick’s main point about the oppression of minorities in society, but I would run the risk of going too far off topic for this blog, so I will focus on how this relates to how we view athletes who do speak out.

The most common theme I’ve heard in response to Kaepernick’s protest is that he should have used another method to make his point, even if they agree that he should be allowed to protest.  This bothers me the most.  The point of a protest is to draw attention to a perceived grievance, and oftentimes, the protester may have to act in a manner that goes against conventional thinking.  Protests are supposed to make the target audience uncomfortable in some way; otherwise, they would simply be ignored, and demonstrating in a manner that’s easy to ignore defeats the purpose.

While the picture of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists on the podium that night in the 1968 Summer Olympics is remembered as an iconic moment in the Civil Rights movement, the gesture drew boos during the anthem, got them banned from the rest of the Games that year, and subject them to death threats back home.  (Sidebar: Peter Norman, the other guy on the podium, supported Smith and Carlos, and he also protested discriminatory laws in his native Australia.  He arguably faced worse ostracism when he returned home due to his stances.)

When the Chicago Bulls visited the White House after winning the 1992 NBA Finals, shooting guard Craig Hodges wore a dashiki and gave a handwritten letter to President George H. W. Bush in protest of his administration’s treatment of minorities and the poor.  Not only was Hodges let go from the Bulls, but no other NBA team was willing to pick him up.  However, like Kaepernick, Hodges appeared to be on the decline during his final year in the NBA. His three-point field goal percentage had dropped to 37.5, his lowest since 1986-87, and because that was the only asset he brought to the team, the Bulls may have used that to justify cutting him regardless of political beliefs, just as the 49ers might do with Kaepernick.

Black professional athletes in this country have always faced a dilemma regarding their place in society.  Do they have a responsibility to use their platform to affect change in society?  Or should they try to maximize their earning potential by avoiding controversy at all costs?  Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were among the most notable athletes in the former group; such athletes believed that they needed to use their fame and power to speak up for, and give back to, underserved Black communities, especially if said athletes lived in those communities. On the other hand, Michael Jordan (who was a frequent target of Hodges) and O.J. Simpson were perceived to be part of the latter group and were more concerned with building a brand palatable for mainstream America.  On one hand, one has to wonder to what degree should athletes take public stances on contentious issues without alienating teammates, team executives, and fans?  And how do athletes navigate a world that might assume them to be “dumb jocks” or “sellouts” unless proven otherwise, while making money playing “a kid’s game”?

Many consider the consumption of sports as an escape from the rigors of everyday life and as a common denominator of people across race, religion, and political affiliation, among other categories.  Thus, it only stands to reason that the introduction of sociopolitical issues into the sports arena would unnerve a good number of sports consumers.  In a country with a tenuous history of race relations such as this, any pro-Black political statement by an athlete, regardless of platform or reasons for said statement, may be construed as “rocking the boat,” as evidenced by the mostly-White reactions to the aforementioned protests.  Essentially, the method of protest really doesn’t matter.  For example, if Kaepernick had chosen to wear a shirt depicting his grievance instead of sitting down during the national anthem, the public probably would have reacted almost as similarly (though perhaps without the invocation of the military by his detractors), because by simply making this stance, he’s bringing the problems of the real world into this supposedly ideology-free zone instead of merely “shutting up and playing” or “sticking to sports.”

Many have long been trying to draw attention to the issues that Kaepernick raised last weekend, but it usually takes a prominent figure with the money and the platform that he has to get others to continue paying attention to them.  This also invalidates the argument that claims that Kaepernick’s salary automatically disqualifies him to speak out against oppression, since not only did he mention that this issue was much bigger than himself, but the large salaries of Black athletes do not automatically buy them protection from discrimination (just ask Thabo Sefolosha and James Blake about that).

The Colin Kaepernick situation has proven once again that mainstream America is only comfortable with Black athletes when they either excel on the playing field, deliberately downplay their heritage, or, in the case of figures like Ali or Jackie Robinson, if enough time has passed and their complicated legacies are reduced to just a handful of moments that look benign in retrospect.  Remaining seated during the national anthem, however, will probably still be taboo a generation from now, and while we don’t exactly know the endgame for what Kaepernick did, he at least got the ball rolling by taking an action that made people notice and think critically about how we do things here, which–once again–is the main point of a protest in the first place.

Now it’s time to take the next step and address the concerns at hand.

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