Much has been made lately of San Francisco Forty Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his recent refusal to stand during the playing of the national anthem before the game. He explained it by saying “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.” Very rare to hear that from any prominent pro athlete these days. Of course the condemnation was swift and inevitable, everything from police union spokesmen with hurt feelings demanding an apology to offended right wingers referring to Kaepernick as a terrorist, a reverse racist and other terms that can’t be repeated here. My take? Kaepernick has every right to express his opinion, he is not required by law or by the NFL to stand for the national anthem and he’s not doing anything wrong. What’s really refreshing is to see someone in his position taking a stand which could be costly for him in public appeal, endorsements and the overall future of his career. So far he doesn’t seem to be fazed by it.
Kaepernick represents what many felt had gone the way of the station wagon, the 8 track tape and leaded gasoline, the activist athlete. Up until the early 1960s, any athlete fortunate to make it to the pro level was very careful not to engage in social issues. Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball was activist enough and that was just to play the game. As the Civil Rights movement gained steam, however, more and more felt compelled to speak out. NBA legend Bill Russell, before the 1961-62 season, was refused service in a Kentucky restaurant before an exhibition game and in response he and other black teammates flew home. Because he realized that many of the same white fans who cheered him on the court called him and other blacks the N word behind his back, he once stated “You owe the public the same it owes you, nothing! I refuse to smile and be nice to the kiddies.” He referred to Boston, where he helped the Celtics to win numerous championships during the 1960s as a “flea market of racism.” Everyone knows about the popular heavyweight great Cassius Clay converting to Islam and changing his name to Muhammed Ali which alienated many white Americans. Even the most mortified among white Americans, however, were not prepared for Ali’s refusal to submit to the draft or his declarations that “I aint got no quarrel with them Vietcongs.” and “No Vietcong ever called me n—-r.” Before the 1968 Summer Olympics, many black athletes talked about boycotting the games to protest racism in America. Among those was UCLA center Lew Alcindor, who we now know as Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The boycott never materialized, however, and it was decided to leave any decision to protest, or not protest, up to the individual athletes. Two of those were sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who finished 1-3 in the 200 meters, with Australian Peter Norman finishing second. During the playing of the Star Spangled banner, Smith raised his right black gloved fist while Carlos raised his left black gloved fist in a “black power” salute. Norman, who remained friends with Smith and Carlos until the day he died, wore a button in support. Smith and Carlos were sent home and were vilified by the press and the public but are now regarded as heroes. Norman was barred from future competition in Australia but never apologized for supporting his black American friends. Abdul-Jabbar, who refused to play on that year’s Olympic team, to this day speaks out against things he finds wrong in society.
Compare the before mentioned individuals to who we have seen over the last three decades and where is the comparison? Society has changed for the better but many would argue that there has still been much left to improve. Michael Jordan, considered to be the greatest basketball player of all time, was notorious for shying away from social issues. When asked about endorsing former Charlotte NC mayor Harvey Gantt in his 1990 campaign against Jesse Helms for senator he reportedly said (and later denied) “Republican buy sneakers too.” During the 1992 Olympics, the first year the pro athletes were officially allowed to play, as part of the “Dream Team,” Jordan threatened to not take part in the victory ceremony due to the warm up suits being manufactured by Reebok while he was under contract with Nike. In 1972, the U.S. men’s basketball team refused to accept the silver medal in protest of what was perceived as them being cheated out of the gold medal game in favor of the Soviet Union. Compare that to millionaire athletes standing up for the grand cause of representing a shoe manufacturer 20 years later. Draw your own conclusion.
One notable exception is former Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf who in March of 1996 was suspended one game by the NBA for refusing to stand for the Star Spangled Banner. Abdul-Rauf claimed that the U.S. flag was a symbol of oppression and tyranny. He worked out a compromise with the NBA where he would stand and pray during the playing of the anthem. Many compare Kaepernick’s more recent stance to Abdul-Rauf’s.
Let me be the first to say that no individual, celebrity or not, should be compelled to be an activist. People should be free to do what they feel is right and it isn’t up to me or anyone else to make that decision for them. I myself have defended Jordan and others against charges that they don’t get active enough in social issues or do enough for the black community. My issue with Jordan has been that while he has the right to keep his political views to himself, he has shown himself to be quick to stand up for the grand cause of Nike and anything that affects his financial bottom line and that represents what many feel to be the problem with today’s athlete, more about making money than about what’s going on the world outside of sports.
What we have seen in recent years, however, is more and more athletes speaking out on issues that matter to their community as a whole. In December of 2014, five members of the St. Louis Rams protested the shooting death of Michael Brown by Ferguson MO police officer Darren Wilson by entering the stadium with their hands up. Cleveland Cavalier superstar LeBron James, along with teammate Kyrie Irving and other players wore shirts with the slogan “I can’t breathe.”in protest of the death of Eric Garner due to a police choke hold. That would have been unheard of a decade ago. Even Jordan contributed to President Obama’s campaign in 2008 and about a month ago spoke out against police brutality and the murder of police officers in retaliation. I have not heard any news reports yet of Hell freezing over.
I have no idea where Kaepernick’s career goes from here but I predict that as far as his protest goes, history will be kind to him as it now is to Russell, Ali, Smith, Carlos and Abdul-Jabbar. In the meantime, the boos will be rained down on him, the calls for him to be cut (which may happen anyway due to his performance) will intensify and he will surely receive a threat or two. I have a feeling though that like the before mentioned, he will end up not regretting a single moment of it.