(Editor's Note: The overall topic of Colin Kaepernick's silent protest is one which invokes intense emotion from fans. I want to remind people it is a SB Nation policy that politics not be discussed on our sport-based websites. I have chosen to leave the comments open on this article, but will not hesitate to remove comments if the discussion leaves the very level-headed topic of the article, and strays into politics and/or the upcoming election.)
By now everyone here will know the background. The 2nd string quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, joined by starting Safety Eric Reed, has created a huge to do by kneeling instead of standing during the national anthem before each game. He does it to protest the current state of race relations in the U.S., and all the deaths and injustices that have led to the Black Lives Matter movement. Other players around the league have followed suit, with still more raising fists in the old "black power" salute that caused such an uproar at the 1968 olympics.
The reaction has been about what you’d expect. It ranges from people like Kid Rock, who just made the news by screaming "F#ck You Colin Kaepernick!" during a concert at Fenway Park, to Coach Harbaugh's quote from Voltaire: "I may not agree with what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." Our own Ben Roethlisberger summarized the issues just about perfectly:
For Colin to use his platform as an NFL quarterback, as an NFL player, to speak on hot topics within this country, within the world, is awesome. He should be able to do that. But when it comes to the national anthem and the flag, I think it stands for something different...
Ben, my respect for you as an off-the-field person just went up a notch. "What the anthem means to me..." is exactly the point to think about.
A bit of history here. I was in college at a time when several protesters got national attention by burning American flags. Attention? It caused a much greater stir of patriotic furor than what we’re seeing with Mr. Kaepernick! There were even calls to add a flag-desecration exception to the First Amendment.
One of my professors at the time happened to be a visiting scholar from Germany. He found the uproar more confusing than anything else, and one day he started the class by asking about it:
What’s the big deal? In Germany the flag is just another symbol. There’s the flag, the anthem, the old eagle, coats of arms... dozens of things. Why are Americans so upset about this particular kind of protest?
One of my more self-righteous fellow students piped up to say that he supported the flag burnings. "To me it means nothing more than a piece of cloth that dirty politicians use to wrap themselves up and distract the public from all their crimes."
I spoke up to disagree, and for once in my life I found the words to express what I meant (which is probably why I remember it so vividly):
In my eyes the flag symbolizes all the things that we want to be even if we fail to achieve them. It’s the symbol of our ideals, not our reality. So when you burn an American flag you’re saying, "I spit on the separation of church and state. I want to stop other people from saying things I disagree with. I think it’s entirely right to send men with guns into your house if you’re heard bad-mouthing the President, or a congressman, or the priest at the end of the street." Flag burning is particularly offensive – though I’d die for some a**hole’s right to do it (I like Voltaire too) – because the person is using American liberties to attack American ideals.
I won. The rest of the class united around my idea. That was indeed the thing that made flag burning such a big deal – though we also united around our disgust at the idea that the power of the State should be used against the people who used the match.
Looking back these many years later, I've come to see that we were both right. My fellow student was right to support flag burners because he "heard" a message about the need to oppose public corruption and to hold our leaders to account. I was just as right to condemn flag burners, because I "heard" a message about depraved hypocrites who wanted to destroy all the things that make our country great. And you know what? I'd give odds that the message each of us "heard" was 100% different from what the flag burners thought they were "saying."
It’s a funny old world sometimes.
Getting back to the point, my 15 year old daughter just happened to be sitting nearby after the Steeler game ended, and she just happened to open up with a tirade about some YouTuber at the very moment when the national anthem was playing for the 49ers vs. Rams. I actually paused the set with the picture of Kaepernick and Reed kneeling down. What was bothering her? It appears that the jerk in question had posted several objectionable videos, including one of crowd reactions to an innocent woman (actually a paid actress) getting groped by a stranger (the jerk) in various public situations. YouTube had refused to ban him and my young lady was upset.
It led to one of those priceless teaching moments about the nature of free speech and how it works in the U.S.A. I pointed to Kaepernick on the screen (thanks again Colin), and told my story about the flag burning debates when I was in college. All very educational. But she was still upset and protested that [the jerk] was "getting away with it!" Which led to an even deeper and better discussion.
I got to quote another of my favorites, de Toqueville’s observation on the "tyranny of the majority":
I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America. In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be freely preached and disseminated; for there is no country in Europe so subdued by any single authority as not to protect the man who raises his voice in the cause of truth from the consequences of his hardihood. If he is unfortunate enough to live under an absolute government, the people are often on his side; if he inhabits a free country, he can, if necessary, find a shelter behind the throne. The aristocratic part of society supports him in some countries, and the democracy in others. But in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one authority [the majority opinion], one element of strength and success, with nothing beyond it.
I pointed out that her YouTuber had effectively destroyed any chance of going into politics by creating a few jagoff videos in his 20’s. And if his dream was become a filmmaker in Hollywood or for TV, he’d shot that to hell too. And probably killed any employment with at least half the big corporations in the country if he ever wanted to do something different. And created a history that would haunt him if he ever wanted to shoot commercials or do anything else that would require a relationship with other Americans.
"He did lose his sponsor," she allowed.
"Actual money, down the drain," I agreed. "And what will happen when he meets some girl he really likes, and she Googles him to see what kind of 'movies' he actually makes?"
"Oooooh," she said, suddenly looking brighter. (You’ve got to hit ‘em where they live!)
All in all it was one of those moments that parents live for, when you can actually dig down deeper into life and "the system," and share with your in-the-process-of-separating young adult some of the hard earned wisdom you’ve accumulated over the years. It wouldn’t have happened – or at least it wouldn’t have worked so well – if not for Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reed kneeling there on TV in front of us.
I understand why people might be upset at this particular protest. Kaepernick means to "say" one thing that’s serious and admirable, but a lot of recipients end up "hearing" a message that’s totally different. Both sides are right if you start from their point of view, and both sides are utterly in the wrong if you start from the others. But here’s the thing: Colin Kaepernick stood up in the United States of America and said something he knew would be unpopular. He made himself the target of The Majority – our acknowledged and absolute tyrant – he has paid a price for doing so, and he’s never once complained about it. For that he has my respect. And for helping to teach my daughter an invaluable lesson in Civics and History he gets my thanks as well.
Dissing the Star Spangled Banner has caused a lot of people unnecessary emotional pain. But the simple attempt to use the platform of sports-created fame has also caused a lot of serious good, such as discussions like the one I had with my daughter. And like the one in this article, and in the Comments that are sure to follow. The hurt will go away, or turn into consequences for which he’ll pay down the road. But the good will endure and grow. The country will have its debate(s) and be stronger for it, just like always.
Thanks again Colin.