You know how else you can tell NFL season has begun in our post-Ferguson climate? Debates about what counts as a “political act” or “patriotic act” on the football field flare up. Patriotic, in this case, being preferred by sports fans, because it doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the game. Former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the National Anthem was political. While the act earned him backlash, including from the president, it’s secured his place in the heritage of politically-engaged Black athletes. Let’s take a trip down memory lane in Howard Bryant’s The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism to revisit the moment Kaepernick made history.
Look at the ugly faces, twisted but not betrayed. The betrayed face contains a hint of hurt, that layer of justified anger that makes you stop and feel a little compassion. This is not that. These are the faces of rage.
They don’t get it. Well, that part isn’t exactly true. They get some of it. They get half of it, their half, the half that convinces them they’ve always been the good guys, and when you’re the good guys, then there is no other half. When they look down from their seats at the football field, they get the enormous American flag unfurled across the field bigger than Rhode Island. They get the color guard, faces stoic, grimly professional, the immaculate Navy uniforms, with the porcelain-white gloves holding the massive flag. And the soldiers? They always get the soldiers.
“They” are typical American sports fans in general and paying customers in particular at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego before the Chargers play the San Francisco 49ers in a meaningless preseason game on September 1, 2016. “They” are the fans who die a little when a receiver drops a pass, in part because it may have cost their fantasy team, or maybe it turned a good call to the bookies into a bad one from the bookies. They’re the ones with the curious relationship to the golden youths on the field, whom they at once idolize and can’t stand for making all those goddamned millions money for playing a kid’s game. (That the owners make all those goddamned billions from that same kid’s game, well, that’s another story.) When things go sideways, they fume at the players (“I coulda made that play!”). Through all the wins and losses, wings, tailgates and fantasy drafts, they resent the players. They resent the money, the fame, the seemingly easy life. Underneath the anger at the key fumble or joy at the last-second touchdown is the root of the resentment, so often racially tinged, toward the black players from the underprivileged backgrounds performing for the predominantly white ticket buyers. It’s coded in the language of sports, this player “doesn’t play the game the right way,” while that one is “undisciplined.” The words are repeated by the machine of fans, coaches, and, especially, by talk radio, creating the filter through which the majority-black sports of basketball and football are viewed. According to Barrett Sports Media, eighteen of the twenty sports-radio shows in the country were hosted by white men.
Yet for all the resentment, fans are quick to bathe in the hero worship, to tell the guys at work they met Von Miller at baggage claim. Thirty years past puberty, they’re the ones in the stands wearing the size 52 Junior Seau jersey. It’s complicated.
The fans who can afford season tickets are predominantly white, and on this day and on virtually every day during the National Football League’s 2016–2017 season, their faces are contorted into spit-cannons all pointed in the direction of the biracial, kneeling San Francisco quarterback, Colin Kaepernick.
The half with the police singing the national anthem and the soldiers, that part they get. This other half, Kaepernick’s half, the half that grew exhausted of video after dashcam video of unarmed African Americans being shot by police, the crumpled, defeated faces of families after expecting justice but receiving another jury acquittal of police, the inconceivable reality to these fans that for millions of people, police are not their friends or even positive elements of a community; that’s the part they don’t get. Two reasons especially stand out: the first is that they don’t want to. They came to see football. They paid out huge dollars for sacks and interceptions, beer and bratwurst. They came to see twenty-two guys crash into each other, not Kaepernick or his teammates kneeling during the national anthem. To them, politics is irrelevant, or so they think. They don’t care about Greenpeace, black lives mattering, or the teach-ins for the youth Kaepernick donates his money to. And they certainly don’t care about the catchy name the mainstream now uses to describe the players’ sudden rediscovery of a social conscience: athlete activism. They are here for one reason: to be entertained. The players may earn a hundred times more in salary, but the fans are the leisure class.
The second reason for fans’ attitude is that they don’t see the ubiquitous deference to the military—the camouflage-printed baseball caps, the police officers, or the fifty-foot American flag in the middle of a football field—as politics at all. Even though much of the escalation of the on-field military spectacle has taken place with two wars ongoing, since the September 11 attacks, the military-cop nexus in sports has rarely been framed as a political response to perhaps the worst day in modern American history. Political is a word describing something fans don’t like, like that Sunday after Thanksgiving, when after a loss to the Miami Dolphins, Kaepernick wore a T-shirt of Malcolm X and Fidel Castro to his post-game press conference, two days after Castro died. In Miami. Now that, the fans surely understood, and it inflamed them, evidenced by a sign in the window in front of Cowboy Bill’s Salsa Loca, a Key West sports bar on Duval Street that refused to let Kaepernick’s face grace the flat screen, even in a game against the playoff-bound home team, the Dolphins.
To my valued customers,
Due to Colin Kaepernick’s total disrespect for this countries [sic] national anthem, I will not televise a single game the 49ers play in. Sorry for the inconveniance [sic].
Political, fans think, describes an individual act of dissidence, not a collective one perpetrated against the public by the state, the mainstream media or your local sports team. Kaepernick walking off the field after beating the Rams, raising a fist in the air, the “Power to the People” salute of the Black Panthers, as he entered the tunnel to the locker room? Political. The Los Angeles Dodgers hosting “Law Enforcement Appreciation Night” in the scarred city of Rodney King and O. J. Simpson during a time of high racial tension between minority communities and the police? Not so much. John Skipper, the former president of ESPN, once hosted a focus group of Trump voters in New York with the Republican political consultant Frank Luntz. “They were quite clear that the flag, football, veterans, and the national anthem was not politics,” Skipper said. “They were also clear they did not want politics in their sports, but they did make a distinction that was a little artificial that politics didn’t include the flag or the military. That wasn’t politics. That was patriotism.”
After the Chargers preseason game, Colin Kaepernick received a phone call from Carmelo Anthony, at the time the star forward for the New York Knicks, who congratulated him on his stance. Anthony was undergoing a similar political awakening in the wake of the 2015 death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police in his hometown of Baltimore, but Kaepernick had been the most effective at coupling the anger and frustration over the lack of police accountability in the streets to the fundamental American ideals of justice and fairness by challenging the country’s most powerful symbol—the flag. Soon, Kaepernick was on the cover of Time magazine, kneeling in his red 49ers uniform, the background completely black, a metaphor for his isolation. He now symbolized a movement.
Anthony told him he was “courageous.” He also cautioned Kaepernick that an isolated gesture would nullify his message and quite possibly do more harm than good. The communities that needed his leadership would expect this protest to be just the beginning. Now that Kaepernick had walked through the door, he couldn’t stop. “If this is just a one-time thing,” Anthony says he told Kaepernick, “you’re fucked.”
Kaepernick was not vague or reckless in his indictments. He said he had no conflict with veterans or the military, ostensibly the honorees of the national anthem and the patriotic ritual at ballgames. While cultivating a response to the police, he spoke with Nate Boyer, the former long-snapper for the Seattle Seahawks who was also a Green Beret. Kaepernick told Boyer that he wanted to make a public stand against police killings but also wanted to be respectful of the military. Boyer suggested quietly taking a knee during the national anthem.
Kaepernick also consulted with Dr. Harry Edwards, the legendary sociologist and activist who organized the iconic Olympic protest in 1968 that culminated with Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists, black gloves high in the thin Mexico City air, on the medal stand. “For me, I just got to a point where I wasn’t concerned about myself or what would happen in my future,” Kaepernick said. “I got to the point where I knew this was the right thing to do. I knew I had to stand up for people who aren’t being treated fairly, and I felt strongly enough about that to be willing to take that risk.”
It was the gesture that directed the country’s attention toward the police and a justice system completely unwilling to convict officers whose use of deadly force seemed to be the first and only option in confrontations with African American citizens. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said, before adding, “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Kaepernick did not advertise his protest. He knelt far behind his teammates, inconspicuously behind the coolers of Gatorade—and he’d done it for three games before anyone even noticed.
About the Author
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine and has served as the sports correspondent for NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday since 2006. He is the author of The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron; Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball; Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston; and the three-book Legends sports series for middle-grade readers. A two-time Casey Award winner (2003, 2011) for best baseball book of the year, Bryant was also a 2003 finalist for the Society for American Baseball Research Seymour Medal. In 2016, he was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and received the 2016 Salute to Excellence Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter at @hbryant42 and visit his website.