Colin Kaepernick stopped being a quarterback the moment he decided to speak his mind by sitting out the national anthem Friday night.
That is, he stopped being a quarterback for public consumption. He did not stop being a citizen, or a person with opinions and beliefs. He sat through the national anthem before Friday’s Packer-49ers football game, and even though it was merely an exhibition game, it was still a provocative place to take a protest, which is why Colin Kaepernick-as-quarterback is now a thing of the past culturally and socially.
This was a choice he made based on his own political beliefs and statements he has made about the corruptions to American society that have been ramped up during this particularly ugly political cycle. That choice is constitutionally protected, and his right to express them is unqualified and unrestricted.
Except, of course, by the conservative wing of the body politic for whom rite and symbolism matter more than backing up words with deeds. For them, Kaepernick has become a new rallying cry for what is wrong with America, and the whirlwind he will reap is something he cannot fully comprehend quite yet.
But he will, because it’s about to get very ugly for him. It got ugly for Gabby Douglas, the Olympic gymnast who merely forgot to put her hand over her heart during the national anthem, and she apologized. Kaepernick may have to do the same, but apologies are cheap these days. The act remains the act, and beyond his future employment with the 49ers, he is about to find out what America does to its dissidents when symbolism and sports collide.
In a more perfect union, his right to speak should be defended no matter what its popularity might be. But that’s not how this will play out. The debate about whether the anthem is suitable for entertainment is now reopened. The debate about whether one forfeits his or her free speech when it aligns with a company (like the National Football League) that wraps itself up in patriotic symbols is now reopened. The issue of a young man’s ingratitude toward generations gone by is now reopened.
[MAIOCCO: Kaepernick takes stand on Civil Rights, sits during national anthem]
Colin Kaepernick just became a national symbol, and he is going to feel very alone at times, because this kind of fight gets dirty quickly, and only degenerates from there.
The 49ers put out a neutral statement on the matter last night, but will be forced as this goes on to disavow his actions and perhaps even condemn him personally. The NFL almost certainly will in time, even though it took an equivocal stand Saturday, and the NFL Players Association will be forced to defend Kaepernick’s right to speak, gesture, or do neither. And because who doesn’t enjoy more ranting from our political candidates, Kaepernick will be used as the new heavy bag in their own attempts to make political hay of this particular political act.
Kaepernick likely didn’t realize the full extent of how he has upset the nation’s chattering classes by skipping his pro forma obeisance to a song, and that’s only because while everyone understands that a tsunami has enormous destructive force, it takes standing under the 60-foot wave to truly comprehend it.
Should he have sat? If he felt strongly enough about it, yes. Freedom of expression means nothing in a hive-mind culture, and obedience to a symbol because “that’s just what you’re supposed to do” is not an compelling argument. But that’s not where this will be argued.
It will be argued on the “I disagree with him so he must be destroyed,” “No, I agree with him so you must be destroyed” fault line that is American conversational culture today. We are not, despite the brochures, a tolerant nation. We are, when stirred, an aggressively closed-minded one, and never more so than on binary issues like the flag and the anthem.
[MAIOCCO: NFL: Standing for national anthem encouraged, not required]
And Colin Kaepernick is the new symbol of what is wrong, and right, with American symbolism, depending on what side of the fault line you stand. He will learn the full depth and breadth of this dysfunction to his detriment, because protesters rarely get out undamaged by the reaction to their protests, but only he can now if this had to be done, because only he knows his conscience.
And how does it end? Odds are, not well for Kaepernick as a football player and public figure. For the rest of us, it will be one more argument to go with all the others we seem to enjoy so bloody much.
Perhaps there is a future to come from this, and it just might be that we learn to accept that freedom of speech and expression is too important a right to burn on this particular altar. If Colin Kaepernick starts a healthy debate about symbols and why they either do or don’t matter, he will have done us all a service.
But knowing us in 2016, I’m guessing it will be just another stinkstorm that proves our capacity to refuse to listen to each other. And have a nice day. We dare you.