Colin Kaepernick spoke up for himself again Sunday, and the number of minds changed by his fuller explanation of why he is no longer going to stand for the National Anthem is not yet known.
We suspect it will be close to zero for the foreseeable future, knowing what we do about the nation’s body politic. As a society, we absorb noise well.
Then again, that isn’t really the end game here. His right to speak stands inviolate, and for the moment anyway, nobody in a position to try to silence him is interested in doing so.
His teammates have given no indication that they will join him, but neither have any of them condemned him for speaking up, let alone out. His employers have chosen a prudent middle road – “We defend his right not to do what we enthusiastically believe.” And even the company that controls his employers is letting the wind take its own course.
And that may be all there is to come from this – one man expressing himself through a gesture without official repercussions. It isn’t quite the same as free speech, because all provocative speech comes at a price in a country in which the predominant conversational tack is angry invective.
It may also turn out that nobody who heard his explanations Sunday will be moved to the opposite side of the debate on it. The issues he spoke on aren’t going to be changed by one man in a reclining pose, but hundreds and thousands of people striving through deed as well as word and body position on a daily basis for a more just and rational society.
But what may have changed is the level of the side debate for (a) why he did what he did, (b) his right to do so, and (c) whether his income or competence as a quarterback should be considered automatic disqualifiers.
That last one is most important, because there was a lot of speech thrown around this issue all weekend on all sides, and everyone got to have their say. In that way, at least, the First Amendment worked as it should.
Moreover, his willingness to stand and more fully articulate his reasons for sitting through the anthem may convince some critics that he meant what he said and did for reasons other than employment. “May,” that is. Minds once painted shut usually need a crowbar to be reopened.
And the next thing that may change is the willingness of other NFL players, or athletes in general, to join Kaepernick’s particular form of protest, or find one more suited to their own particular temperaments. The level of social activism among athletes has still, for the most part, been reserved to rhetoric – by speech, by written word or by fashion choice. The most dramatic of all remains the University of Missouri football team’s announced plan to boycott a game if the school president did not resign after a string of racial incidents on campus and the school’s sub-tepid response. It worked, because numbers matter, even if only tactically.
Kaepernick sits alone for the moment, and the tenor of the debate has mostly surrounded his right to complain about the conditions in which many of his fellow citizens live, with the criticism largely based on whatever athletic, financial or character flaw he is perceived to possess. This is an interesting notion, the idea that one's right to object to the conditions in which one's fellow citizens live is actually limited by one's income, depth chart position or completion percentage.
Strength in numbers such as the U of M boycott, on the other hand, prevents opponents from isolating one person or other and labeling him or her a lone malcontent. When there are lots of voices raised, the debate stops being about the singer and becomes the song.
Kaepernick cannot be held responsible for all that. He spoke his conscience at the time presented him, and in the way he felt would resonate best. It won’t get him traded or released or promoted or re-signed. But neither did it get him condemned by those who most directly affect his career. His right to speak is being defended, which isn’t his issue necessarily, but it allows the issues upon which he speaks to get a further hearing.
And in time . . . well, time has its own funny way of sorting all that out. The point is, Colin Kaepernick may not have changed any hearts or minds, but he has won the right to keep trying. A very small victory given the issues at hand, perhaps, so maybe we call it a momentary win-lette and let the rest of the nation decide as it must what to make of it all.