by Clark Groome
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest about the oppression of “black people and people of color” in the United States is hard to fault.
His decision to protest that treatment by not standing for the national anthem at a couple of recent Niners’ preseason games is another matter altogether.
For many people, myself included, standing for the national anthem is a given. For them it shows respect for our country and honors the men and women who have represented that flag in battles going back more than two centuries.
When Kaepernick took his stand, actually it was a seat, at the 49ers/Green Bay Packers game a couple of weeks ago, he ignited a controversy that had little to do with what he was protesting and more to do with how he was doing it.
Thanks to social media – or maybe we should call it “anti-social” media – people all over the country have had vehement reactions to his protest. Many have said that what he did disrespects the flag and is contemptuous of those, including many in my family and dozens of treasured friends, who served in the military, many of who came home less than whole.
While Kaepernick denies that was his intention, the perception, as is so often the case, has become the reality for some.
Others have said that whatever it takes to get the message out is a good thing.
I’m one of those people who worries not about what he did – I honestly believe that our soldiers and our values protect his right to express himself in any way he feels appropriate so long as he doesn’t break the law – but that his protest blurs the serious and important issue he wants his country to address.
I also believe that athletes, and others in the public eye, have not only a right to stand up for what they believe but an obligation to do so.
Think back to Muhammad Ali refusing to be drafted in 1967 or when thousands of young men burned their draft cards. Think back to the disruptive protests Act Up staged over the lack of attention to AIDS and the demonization of those stricken with the then always fatal disease. Think back to the fear engendered in our society when the 1963 March on Washington culminated in Martin Luther King’s magnificent “I Have a Dream Speech.”
What two things do those examples have in common? First, they angered and/or scared people with different views or ingrown prejudices. Second, they all turned out to be right.
Thanks to those controversial actions the United States gradually withdrew from the quagmire that was Vietnam; AIDS was addressed and funded and has since become a manageable – if still serious – disease that’s no longer a stigma; and the Civil Rights movement made some significant headway in Congress and in the country as a whole.
The difficult relationship between the police and the public, particularly those of color, has to be dealt with and dealt with soon so no more innocent people lose their lives.
One approach is that which Eagles players Malcolm Jenkins, Jordan Matthews, Najee Goode and Jason Kelce took when they met with Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross Jr. to talk about “how to bridge the gap between law enforcement and black communities.”
While you may not agree with what Kaepernick did or would have found a different way to protest, his actions have started people talking and the media covering the issue on TV and by writing articles like this one. That might just lead to some solutions to a problem most agree is very serious.
And don’t demonize Kaepernick. He did what he believes he needed to do to bring the issue to the fore. He has pledged a million dollars of his salary to organizations working to overcome racial inequality.
He has said repeatedly that he supports the military, and many military people who fought for his right to free speech and protest agree.
One military man, retired war-zone veteran Green Beret Staff Sgt. Nate Boyer, wrote Kaepernick an open letter in The Army Times explaining his initial concerns but ultimately concluding, “Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it. When I told my mom about this article, she cautioned me that ‘the last thing our country needed right now was more hate.’ As usual, she’s right.
“There are already plenty of people fighting fire with fire, and it’s just not helping anyone or anything. So I’m just going to keep listening, with an open mind.
“I look forward to the day you’re inspired to once again stand during our national anthem. I’ll be standing right there next to you.”
He didn’t wait. At the 49ers/Chargers game last Thursday, Boyer was standing right next to Kaepernick, who had “taken a knee,” during the national anthem.
That’s a start.