One of the great things about America is that we all have the right of self-casting. Under most circumstances, we decide the role we play, or don’t play, within society. Close examination of the human condition results in choosing action or apathy.
Colin Kaepernick this weekend joined the growing ranks of athletes moved to take action. Armed with what seems to be a heightened level of personal awakening, he’s confronting the injustice and inequality stitched into the fabric of this nation from its birth and in recent months been on frighteningly vivid display.
Kaepernick’s decision to sit rather than stand during the national anthem played before the 49ers-Packers game on Friday generated the kind of debate that always accompanies defiance of tradition. Whether he is to be admired or reviled or ignored depends on your viewpoint.
Some, perhaps acknowledging the injustice that provoked Kaepernick’s quiet protest, are behind him in spirit and supporting him through social media.
Others, not taking a moment to step into Kaepernick’s shoes, are so repulsed they’re setting fire to his jersey and blistering him through social media.
This discord is the American way, always has been, and no matter which side you choose it will be unpopular with the other.
Where not long ago it was enough to finally be granted access to gated communities and through the doors that line Wall Street, black pro athletes are discovering they can and should recognize the 99 percent, not only as a matter of principle but also because it’s necessary to promote healing and progress. Social sickness doesn’t cure itself. It needs therapy, which is a painful process.
But . . . shouldn’t we all strive to be better people and, therefore, a better nation?
No longer is it sufficient for millionaire black athletes – though demands for equality should involve all, regardless of race – to sit back, eyes closed to the world below, piling up endorsements as discontent within the nation beyond turns to rage.
Thus we have Kaepernick, perhaps realizing anew that we are not a country of equals, addressing these very significant issues. This comes a month after WNBA players wore “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts, which was preceded by NBA star Carmelo Anthony organizing fellow stars to make a powerful statement.
Football players and coaches at the University of Missouri, inspired by events in nearby Ferguson, Mo., last year demanded change in hopes of bringing the institution out of the dark ages or racism. We’ve seen members of the former St. Louis Rams go down this road, as have players from the Cleveland Browns.
We are entering a New Awakening, and awakenings among those outside the power structure tend to scare those within. Muhammad Ali was considered threatening, as were Tommie Smith and John Carlos. They shined a light on mistreatment, and change followed. They sacrificed, but they wouldn’t change anything they did.
Now, 50 years later, having made substantial gains on and off the field, black athletes are feeling secure enough to speak up without concern for retaliation or retribution. They are listening to their consciences, following their hearts.
Kaepernick, 28, is biracial by birth but always refers to adoptive parents Rick and Teresa, both white, as his parents. Growing up in Turlock, on the edge of California’s Central Valley, Colin is as American as American can be. And if you can feel what he feels, there can only be admiration. He didn’t fire a Molotov cocktail, didn’t assemble a bomb, didn’t commit a crime, or even an ethical or moral sin.
Kaepernick simply notes the hypocrisy, and the dichotomy between one of our symbols of freedom and actual reality. If to him the lyrics to the anthem ring hollow, then he was and is being true to himself.
“I am not going to stand up and show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” he told NFL Network. “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.”
We don’t have to look far to realize what’s behind Kaepernick’s decision. There is the spate of videotaped police killings of unarmed citizens of color, murders the system often considers “justifiable.” There is the uptick in irresponsible political rhetoric, much of it bigoted or sexist or Xenophobic or otherwise discriminatory. There is the overwhelming sense that no aspect of our society is more resistant to real equality than, of all segments, the justice system.
So Kaepernick took a stand. It’s one man’s expression of displeasure with the state of our nation. Some want to attack foreigners. Some want to build walls. Some want to reduce taxes on the rich. And while some fight to preserve widespread racism and corruption in our halls of power and influence, others wish to eradicate it.
As the images of injustice continue to stalk us, is it not imperative to at some point turn to face it? That’s what Kaepernick and other athletes are doing. There will be more. And more. Muhammad Ali is grinning from the grave.