On Sitting Down…

Even if you’re not a sports fan, you would be hard-pressed to have escaped the coverage of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s recent and continued protest over the United States’ treatment of people of color. He has decided that he will no longer stand for the National Anthem. If you want a summary, here you go.

Outrage followed. Venom was spewed. Jerseys were burned. People interpreted Kaepernick’s actions as a giant middle-finger to veterans and currently-serving military personnel. Some of these people included fellow NFL players.

Some have claimed that Kaepernick should face repercussions—from the team, from the league. Many critique him because he’s a privileged man who has millions of dollars and why doesn’t he do more than simply sit down? Others claim he’s not even Black, so why is he even saying something? Why doesn’t he just keep his mouth shut and play the game that pays him so well?

I come from a very different perspective, so I’m going to analyze and respond to some of the responses that Kaepernick’s actions have received:

  • He’s anti-military. This is by far the largest response that I’ve seen. Refusing to stand for the National Anthem dishonors the thousands of individuals who have given their lives for the freedom we enjoy and Kaepernick isn’t using this freedom appropriately. At what point did the National Anthem become synonymous with veterans and only veterans? While I am very thankful for those that serve and given the ultimate sacrifice, veterans do not have the only claim to our anthem. The best part? Tons of veterans are actually supporting Kaepernick. (Check out #VeteransForKaepernick). It is played at sporting events all over the country. It represents our athletes when they are awarded medals at the Olympics. It’s part of our national holidays, accompanies fireworks and commemorations, brings tears to many eyes. The National Anthem is about connecting to our history and the foundations of the country in which we live. With all of this being said…
  • He’s anti-American. The central tenet of Kaepernick’s protest is that everyone in today’s America isn’t actually free. He cannot be a hypocrite and stand up and pay homage to this symbol any more. Why doesn’t this cut through for us? Isn’t the foundation of American life that we have the freedom to say what we want? To organize? To petition our government for redress of our grievances? I would actually argue that Kaepernick is being more American than those of us who do not exercise these rights.
  • The Anthem is America. My response? I can’t actually say it any better than my second-favorite fictional president, Andrew Shephard, in the film The American President. If you re-read the bolded section, and replace the word “flag” with the word “anthem,” why shouldn’t a man refuse to stand for it, in protest?:
    • “America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.” You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”
  • He should be doing more. Kaepernick has a large platform by which to raise awareness. His protest has created a media frenzy. Why shouldn’t he use his role to do this? I mean, the NFL itself uses its massive brand to bring attention to: Hispanic Heritage Month, breast cancer awareness, military appreciation. Countless NFL players have foundations that raise dollars and awareness for causes. Who are we to judge Kaepernick for starting his social justice route by raising awareness this way? Each of us who try to work for social justice had to start out somewhere. In the end, he still has us all talking, right?
  • Our own hypocrisy. Many of us stood idly by, turned our heads, kept on cheering for our teams, pouring dollars into a system that ignored actual, real crimes committed by players in this league. Domestic abusers. Rapists. Murderers. Dog fighters. Now all of a sudden we’re outraged because a Black man stood up (or actually, more apropos, sat down) to exercise his rights as a citizen? It’s really about privilege, right? Kaepernick is a Black man who is demanding to be heard. He is putting his message out in front. He is using the sport that he excels at as his pulpit. And how dare he, right? Shouldn’t he just shut up and play his game? How dare he be more than just a drop-back, scrambling passer? Just amuse us consumers. Step and fetch, boy, right?

The answer to speech that we don’t agree with is not less speech, but more. Choosing to stand, or sit, or fold your hands, or put your hand over your heart, or bow your head—all of these actions are actually speech. If you make the choice to stand for the Anthem, this must mean something to you. This Anthem stirs something within you. It makes you feel connection. Wouldn’t you want someone to stand only if they wanted to honor its sentiments as opposed to out of pressure? Compelled speech is not free speech. Compelled speech is not what our founders wanted.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering? My favorite fictional president? Here’s a hint: #BartletForAmerica

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