You can say Colin Kaepernick is misguided, wrong, a player at the end of his NFL career who will inevitably be traded away from San Francisco any day now, but what you can’t deny is that his newest protest has been nearly perfect at accomplishing its intended goal: a benign action that has elicited a firestorm in response, and for reasons that get to the heart of the weird relationship the NFL posits to have with America: The Brand.
To recap: The embattled quarterback did not stand for the national anthem before a preseason game, and later clarified that he had not done so because “[he was] not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” This did not sit well with many of the NFL’s constituency, who presumably took issue with either the sentiment or the execution — and some, we assume, took issue with both — and the media (both capital-M and social) has been abuzz with as many piping hot takes as you can stand to read, whatever your political leanings and read of the situation.
It hasn’t just been armchair nationalists and keyboard pinkos doing the thinking, either. Jim Harbaugh, Kaep’s former coach, originally said that he “acknowledge[d] [Kaepernick’s] right to do that. I don’t respect the motivation or the action,” while later saying that it was actually “the method of action” he was not a fan of. That is to say, sitting down when it is expected, but not required, that you will stand. And that, really, is at the heart of the problem. That Harbaugh literally makes his living off of an inequitable system entrenched in unpaid, often black, labor as the coach of the University of Michigan is something that may be worth exploring but would probably come across, overly simplified, as ad hominem point scoring.
The response to Kaepernick’s action, at least from folks who are not on board with it, has mostly been a variation on the oft-repeated riff of “stick to sports”; the notion that as an athlete operating in an ostensibly apolitical arena, social and political commentary is outside the realm of his purview or his value to the average football fan, and would be better left unsaid. This is, to put it lightly, unrealistic, because sports in general (and the NFL in particular) trade in politics all the time — how else do you explain the way the league doles out millions of dollars every year to the armed forces in exchange for the PR associated with using The Flag™, The Troops™, and so on as a way to inoculate what would otherwise be just a form of entertainment with a base vestige of patriotism?
Drew Brees, who routinely visits soldiers on the USO Tour, hit on something similar when he suggested that Kaep’s protest was so cutting because of his own reaction to the flag, that it evoked his relationship with his military family and all the ideas and ideals about his vision of America. That’s entirely legitimate, and it would be disingenuous to suggest otherwise. By the same token, the implicit notion that Brees is so bothered by: That the flag may not, in fact, represent such a nice thing to every American, is equally legitimate. That the discussion is being reduced to a binary: You are either for the Flag, the Troops, and Freedom or you are against those things and think the country is flawed. But it’s entirely possible to recognize that both things can coexist, and are in fact true.
The flag is not the country. The country is not the flag. The flag is not the troops. The troops are not the flag. And none of these things have anything to do with football, really, a sport played by people who are mostly not soldiers under the employ of billionaires who routinely ask the public to finance their stadiums for our collective enjoyment. Consider: If Brees himself was to, say, sit down during the national anthem as a way to draw attention to the incredibly poor support system in place for returning veterans or to highlight the fact that the VA is a complete mess, there would be nothing inherently disrespectful about it, it would be an effective way of highlighting a social problem that is, presumably, near and dear to his heart.
Right? That being the case, what’s the difference when it comes to Kaepernick? Why is it covertly (or not so covertly, depending on where you look) being derided as anti-American? Why are some examinations of the country’s flaws being held up as nothing less than a case for the Presidency? It would be interesting, perhaps, to see how many people who disagree with Kaepernick’s assessment of the country agree with a tonally-identical assessment when spoken by the Republican nominee — but others are shunted off as things better suited to be left undiscussed?
The answer, of course, is that it’s much easier to focus on what’s uplifting and awesome about being an American citizen, while considering that other people may not have it as nicely as you do is ethically hard work. The reaction (and in less-polite arenas, the vitriol) directed at the Kaepernick is entirely evidence of that, from Brees on down.