I wasn’t going to get involved in the Colin Kaepernick controversy at all. I had my reasons. The first is, I don’t care that much about the 49s or what happens in preseason football. Secondly, tossing your two-cents into a nation-wide social media battle is not the best way to make friends, and you may end up losing some. Third, I was pretty sure Kaepernick’s hill wasn’t the one I wanted to plant my flag in.
In case you don’t know, Kaepernick, a QB for the San Francisco 49s, remained seated during the national anthem when it was played before his team’s preseason game last Friday night. He was delivering a silent protest (which are sometimes the loudest) and a political message. The media picked up on it, and before you can say Twitter backlash, social media wires and sports talk shows everywhere were filled with folks who had an opinion on his action. He later explained his protest:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” he said. “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.”
Within 10 minutes, people were taking sides. Like I said, I wasn’t going to join the Comment Wars, but this morning I read something over at NBCSports that changed my mind. It seems Jackie Robinson said this in his autobiography:
“There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”
Jackie also felt the hesitancy of completely embracing the symbolism of the hand that held him and his ancestors down for so long. I was reminded, and once again taken aback, by just how recently slavery was a policy in our country. At times it feels like it happened a million years ago, but Jackie Robinson’s grandfather was a slave. Not so long ago, after all.
Racism in America, institutional and otherwise, is quite real, and it runs deep. Furthermore, contrary to the corporate media’s framing of racism as a black/white issue, it impacts Latinos and other people of color as well. Racism is still too large a piece of our country’s fabric, and the call to right the wrongs it creates is absolutely necessary.
Colin Kaepernick feels a compulsion to do something about a wrong he sees – and empathizes with. Last Friday he used the power of his visibility as a professional athlete to protest. At the time he was silent, but he had to know the cameras were watching, and he would be asked about it later. He is using the soapbox he has available. Like them or not, political protests are a part of the American sports experience, and have been for a long time. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised the Black Power salute on the gold medal stands of the 1968 Olympics.
I get it. Some folks don’t like politics mixing in their sports. Me too, at times. An example: my good friend was denied the chance to box for Team USA when America boycotted the 1980 Russian Olympics. He was crushed when he lost that opportunity. (In a note of irony – we boycotted because Russia invaded…Afghanistan.)
Do you remember when God Bless America was a seventh inning stretch song? It was shortly after 9-11, and symbols of patriotism were everywhere to be found. Baseball adopted God Bless America, and it was inserted into every stadium’s game program.
I was never a fan of the Iraq War, and even less of a fan of singing about gods during baseball games. As the years (and the wars) drug on, God Bless America stubbornly remained a part of Dodger Stadium’s seventh inning stretch. I spent that time sitting out the song. Like Kaepernick and Robinson, I refused to take part in the pageantry and symbolism of things I fundamentally disagreed with. My protest was private, silent, and important only to me. But it was there if you were looking.
Protests in sports aren’t going away. In fact, they’re becoming even more commonplace, because the old saying is still relevant and truer than ever. One picture now spawns thousands of words. I’m of the thought that’s a good thing for a democracy.