This Sunday is the Super Bowl, the culmination of the NFL season and perhaps the story of the year was that of renewed activism among the league’s athletes, as embodied by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Kaepernick’s season did not go well. He started on the bench, but ended the season as the much-questioned starter of a 2-14 team. But he made headlines with his decision not to stand for the national anthem.
Kaepernick didn’t make a big issue of the protest at first. He simply sat. When it was noticed by the media, he explained that he would not stand for the anthem until important issues were addressed, including racial injustice, particularly citing police brutality.
The reaction was diverse. Some supported Kaepernick, others criticized him harshly, claiming that his protest was an insult to the flag and (somehow) to the military. I suspect that the military can handle a protest; after all, the right to do so is one they supposedly fight for, isn’t it?
Perhaps the prevailing view was that an athlete had the right to protest, but maybe this wasn’t the best method. Protesting the anthem, many thought, had the potential to alienate people, ensuring that they’ll never listen to what you have to say. I had thoughts along those lines myself. While I generally find forced patriotism to be an unpatriotic concept, I thought his strategy might be counterproductive.
But then, something happened. The protest spread. Not in huge waves, but in small rivulets, across the league, other professional and amateur sports, and the culture.
Members of the Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, and other teams joined the movement. In the National Women’s Soccer League, Megan Rapinoe knelt for the anthem. Other players found ways to forge team unity and protest at the same time. In Seattle and Kansas City, players locked arms. In some cities, they raised fists.
Kaepernick himself changed his approach. After speaking with a former Green Beret who’d also had a brief NFL career, he knelt for the anthem instead of sitting. He also pledged to donate money to organizations working to improve relationships between citizens and the police.
Still, the criticism came, some of it legitimate and measured (it turns out Kaep did not vote in our recent election) and some vitriolic and nonsensical. Support came as well.
In Seattle, an entire high school team, its coaches and a few of the opposing players knelt. At Howard University, cheerleaders knelt. In Oakland, some members of the high school band knelt, as did the members of East Carolina University.
At times, it got messy. In East Texas, the Beaumont Bulls, a youth football team, chose not to stand for the anthem. The team got hate mail and threats of lynching and eventually, their season fell apart.
The protest spread to the NBA and WNBA. Prior to a Miami Heat game, the anthem singer knelt while performing.In North Carolina, a high school referee knelt.
This should end all of the talk that the protests are unpatriotic. As Henry David Thoreau said, “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty.”
As the movement spread, so did the discussion. I saw this with my own team. Brandon Marshall, Denver Broncos linebacker (and college teammate of Kaepernick) knelt, occasionally joined by a teammate or two.
He paid the price for it. Marshall lost two sponsors for his efforts. When he was injured during the first game of the season and briefly went into the league’s concussion protocol, the reaction on Twitter was vicious. Some fans called it karma; others tweeted angrily at the Jets’ Brandon Marshall instead of the one for the Broncos. In the midst of the season, Marshall received a racist, vulgar, and threatening letter that he turned over to team security.
But Marshall was resolute, and unlike his critics, looking for solutions. He met with school children, supported community organizations, and had multiple discussions with the Denver chief of police. After the Denver police department rewrote its use of force policy, Marshall ended his protest, noting that while things aren’t yet perfect, something of substance had been achieved. And, just after the season ended, Marshall was again working with the Denver police, going on ride-alongs and participating in simulation training to better understand the challenges they face.
If there is to be hope for improvement on whatever issue you care about, this is how it will be achieved. By people talking and truly listening to each other, even when they disagree.
The conversation continues. At Millikin University, the team voted to protest the anthem, remaining in the locker room. One player chose to come out anyway, and stand. As far as I am concerned, both are acts of patriotism.
Photo: Getty Images