The death of Muhammad Ali brought back recollections and tributes in which his activism was celebrated. When it comes to athlete activism, Ali is lauded as one of the pioneers in the civil rights movement. We’re witnessing the revitalization of athletes’ passion for social justice. The intersection of sports and current events have spawned a growing number of athletes who are using their voices to increase awareness as well as put pressure on the populace to not turn a blind eye.
As it is today, sports figures cannot distance themselves from the realities we all face. No longer are those we hold in high regard as role models ignoring the brutality and senseless tragedies happening outside of their bubble. Athletes are sensitive to the significance they hold in what one could deem as a second civil right movement. Many have inserted themselves in the conversation to enact change.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the latest athlete to call attention to what he explains as standing up for what is right:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. 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.”
Kaepernick’s protest has been controversial, to say the least. For one, it comes on the heels of a bloody summer in which we witnessed Philando Castile take his last breaths on Facebook Live and watched as five Dallas cops were gunned down during a peaceful protest. For another, there seems to be much confusion as to the meaning of true patriotism, as well as regarding America’s history of effecting change in the civil rights arena by using silent protest.
America isn’t great for reasons that are layered and complex. Kaepernick and other black athletes are coming together to protest a system that is broken.
Rather than understanding Kaepernick’s act as one in the context of America’s long line of silent civil rights protests, many people instead took to Twitter and comment sections to rebuff what they perceive as an act of disrespect. White America holds the flag and the national anthem up as the ultimate symbol of patriotism. This country prides itself on clinging to the freedom of expression and the liberty we have to even vocalize differing opinions. So it’s ironic that Kaepernick’s protest is portrayed as having a lack of patriotism.
The attacks against Kaepernick also reinforced the complicated relationship that America has with black athletes. On one hand, we expect these highly gifted athletes to exist for entertainment and fantasy football pools. And yet, we don’t want to hear NFL and NBA players, who are still black men when they take off the uniform, speak out on issues affecting their communities and the black diaspora here and abroad. Black athletes are only as influential as long as their opinions follow mainstream. Not only is that unreasonable but it contradicts the values America originally stood for and should still stand for today.
White America conveniently dismisses the history upon which this country was even built. Settlers pillaged and wiped out an entire civilization to build their own in order to practice religious freedom. They then turned around and used violence to enslaved an entire race. Our military goes to wars to protect civil liberties and the right to choose. All of this under the guise of “patriotism.”
Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the national anthem doesn’t make him less of a patriot. In fact, it’s actually justified as a black man when you know the pro-slavery rhetoric contained in the lyrics.
Americans often want to ignore large parts of history because of the ugliness that has taken root in the soil of this land. They expect us to move on from the horrors of slavery. They want us to be thankful for progress that we’ve made. At the same time, they don’t acknowledge that black women are more educated and less paid than white males. They aren’t outraged when a city and its residents have been poisoned by lead in the drinking water. Instead of believing that police officers are poorly trained and operate like paramilitary, they’d rather tell people of color to submit and cower. The progress that white America props up in discussions of race is consistently negated, because they don’t care about the deconstructing the system.
The basis for the “Make America Great Again” campaign of Donald Trump is the white lower class feeling that they’ve lost power within the system. Many of Trump’s followers represent the lowest common denominator of people. He uses racist, homophobic, and xenophobic language to resurrect an attitude from the period of Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Within the subset, patriotism is merely used as a crutch for affirming racist views.
As a black athlete, it’s impossible to separate from the racial construct of America. To be a black athlete in America is to be viewed as property; an extension of white team owners who have given you a chance to pull yourself by your bootstraps. The problem with that is America equates that relationship similarly to a slave-master relationship. It’s easy to want athletes to not have a voice or opinion when you don’t see them as individuals.
I stand with Colin Kaepernick.
I hope he sits during every tone-deaf rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The criticism Kaepernick is receiving is a reminder that the heart of America hasn’t progressed as much as we claim.
The Constitution, the flag, and the national anthem are all symbolic of the fact that we live in a country where Kaepernick has the right to voice his political speech. To hold any of those symbols as being more sacred than the concept of the freedom they represent makes no sense.
And protesting the national anthem and the flag is about calling out the system that permits racism and discrimination to still thrive.
Photo Credit: YouTube Screen Capture/NBC