Earlier in the summer I wrote about a number of high profile NBA players taking a stand against the gun violence and police brutality that has been sweeping across the USA. However, as America’s most popular sport, American Football, geared up for the new season a quarterback who had fallen from the public eye began a protest that has swept across the NFL and received support from President Obama.
Colin Kapernick was one of the NFL’s most promising young quarterback who led the San Francisco 49ers to the Superbowl back in 2012. Unfortunately for Kapernick his level of play has declined rapidly since and he has been reduced to an also ran. But on August 26th before the 49ers preseason game against the Green Bay Packers Kapernick was vaulted back into view. His decision to sit during the national anthem in protest of the social injustice that vast majority of black Americans face on a daily basis. It was a decision that has both caused outrage and garnered huge support both from within the NFL and outside the league.
Kapernick’s protest follows in a long tradition of black athletes fighting social injustice and racism. From Jesse Owens heroics at the 1936 Olympics and NBA legend Bill Russell’s involvement with The Black Power Movement. To Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War famously stating “And shoot them [the VietCong] for what? They never called me a nigger”. Perhaps the most famous of all these is the image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power salute on top of the Olympic podium in 1968. However, as professional sport has become more lucrative athletes have become reluctant to engage in controversial political statements. Given the evidence of the last few years the times are changing.
There are numerous reasons why Kapernick’s decision is incredibly brave. Firstly the NFL is a much more conservative environment than the NBA especially amongst the fans and the coaching and executive structure. After Kapernick’s protest numerous videos of fans burning his shirt have emerged and one NFL executive who wished to remain anonymous labeled Kapernick a traitor. There is a history of NFL players receiving threats after protesting social injustice. In 2014 five members of the St Lois Rams entered the field with their hands up following the Ferguson shootings that year. Their involvement with the ‘hands up don’t shoot’ movement protesting the very same thing Kapernick is today led to the players being marked as traitors to their fans, their team and to America. Therefore Kapernick was clearly aware that his actions would not be universally acclaimed, for someone who makes their living in a very public arena this is a bold and commendable course of action.
More so than other American sports NFL games have an enormous military presence and many NFL teams have received substantial amounts of money from the Department of Defence for acts of ‘paid patriotism’ such as troops singing the national anthem or unfurling the American flag on the field of play. This makes Kapernick’s decision all the braver as to protest the anthem which honours the US military whilst they are present in large numbers is not an easy thing to do. In America the armed forces are held in an almost religious reverence and any perceived slight against them causes uproar no matter how questionable their actions over the past 60 years from Korea to Vietnam and Iraq. Kapernick is by no means a trail blazer but he is certainly swimming against the tide.
The question is not does Kapernick have a legitimate point but is this an effective means of protest? I think the reasons for Kapernick’s protest are undeniably just, ethnic minorities in America have been treated appallingly by successive governments which has created massive racial divides. The Star Spangled Banner may mean something to white America but for the vast majority of Black, Latino and Asian immigrants it does not reflect the country they live in. From afar it certainly doesn’t seem like the land of the free or the home of the brave.
Whether during the anthem is the right time to protest is questionable, but it is the biggest stage he has and it has caused a massive reaction across America. Many other NFL players have joined in Kapernick’s protest and he has received support from military veterans on social media. Kapernick’s jersey has become one of the best selling jerseys in the NFL and J. Cole and Trey Songz have performed wearing his jersey. There is no doubt that Kapernick’s actions are gaining traction and he now has a huge platform to engage with the issue, it remains to be seen whether he can foster any meaningful change.
What the last few months have shown us is that we can expect more political involvement and engagement from black athletes, which can only be a good thing. Kapernick may not solve all the problems on his own but along with Carmelo Anthony Dwyane Wade and many others he is ushering in a new era of activism from black athletes, reminiscent of the actions of past athletes Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Bill Russell.