The firestorm sparked by San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand during the national anthem reveals more about our priorities than his patriotism. Many fellow athletes, fans and others have reacted vehemently, branding the quarterback a traitor. Some have burned Kaepernick’s jersey or fired-off death threats. Donald Trump suggested he find another country to call home.
Kaepernick has undoubtedly selected a method of protest guaranteed to provoke controversy and perhaps distract from his central issue– the endless string of police shootings of unarmed African Americans. While few challenge his right to free speech, many question his choice of venue and his perceived disrespect for flag, country and the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. Yet, Kaepernick has not asked others to break laws or be disloyal to America. By modifying his stance to a kneel, he has demonstrated a degree of respect for the anthem, while still displaying his dissent. As an athlete, protesting on the field ensures peak visibility of his viewpoint. Across the NFL, a wave of players have joined Kaepernick, ensuring attention to his cause. Considering the weight of his underlying motivations, the reaction of some to Kaepernick is hard to fathom. Since he has broken no laws nor instigated violence, how Kaepernick balances his protest with patriotism should be a matter of his own judgment. America does not face a crisis of national pride. Our central issues today do not center around lack of patriotic symbols or gestures of loyalty to our country.
Labeling Kaepernick’s exercise of free speech unpatriotic, while sidestepping the core issues inspiring his actions misses the central point. The relentless killing of unarmed African Americans has reached a crisis point. The tension between African Americans and the police is part of a larger saga that spans our country’s history. That saga has seen a civil war, a civil rights movement, the election of an African American president and, still, nearly 250 years since our nation’s founding, lingering racial divides that continue to result in spilled blood. The issue of police shootings touches not only on African Americans’ sense of basic safety, but the progress they have made as a community, and their value as a people. To say “Black Lives Matter” is not to say that they matter more than others, but only to reassert the basic fact – that they do matter. For when blood is spilled and innocent lives lost so frequently, the importance of those lives requires reinforcement. This issue affects all African Americans, regardless of social or economic class. It eclipses individual events in Tulsa, Columbus, Charlotte and countless other cities and, in fact, transcends the African American community. How we deal with it will define our country. We are better served focusing on the greater issue that compelled Kaepernick to act, rather than his form of protest.
It has been decades since athletes like Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King stood up for issues of justice. Doing so poses personal risks -- to fan support, endorsements and ultimately a potential roster spot. Kaepernick has found his social conscience and, in doing so, has encouraged other athletes to find theirs. The concerns driving these athletes speak to our nation’s character. We should focus on that, rather than malign his.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.