As for many American boys, sports were a staple of my life growing up in the 90s and it was rare to hear about contemporary athletes taking stands on political or social issues. Sure, there was Mohammed Ali, Jim Brown, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, but that was a different era and the urgency that impelled their activism seemed out of place at the time (in the mind of a white, middle class kid). The reigning most-famous athlete in the world at the time, one Michael Jordan, made it clear that he was not interested in wading into politics. When asked to support Harvey Gantt, an African American running against racist Republican North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in 1990, Jordan reportedly (and some say apocryphally) told a friend, “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Besides, my young reptilian brain thought, what did these athletes have to protest about, making millions of dollars a year?
Then in 1996 a funny-named point guard for the Denver Nuggets started stretching on the sidelines during the national anthem. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who came into the league as Chris Jackson before converting to Islam, explained that he saw the American flag a “symbol of oppression, of tyranny.” Abdul-Rauf said, “I’m a Muslim first and a Muslim last. My duty is to my creator, not to nationalistic ideology.” I remember being stunned – this just wasn’t what an 11-year-old boy expected from professional athletes. For me at the time, as for Americans today, there should be an unbreakable wall between sport and politics.
I thought about Abdul-Rauf after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem before a preseason game on August 26, igniting a firestorm and the now typical deluge of social media commentary, internet hot takes, backlashes and backlashes to the backlashes. “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,” Kaepernick told media after the game. Since then, Kaepernick has continued his protest and indicated that he plans to continue to do so.
Kaepernick says he will continue to sit through national anthems https://t.co/rl0Kpf5wLo
— Adam Gallagher (@AEGallagher10) September 9, 2016
This comes at an interesting moment for athletes and activism. With race playing a central role in the 2016 election and more and more attention paid to police brutality against African-Americans and general institutional racism, more athletes are taking public stands on social issues in ways that most millennials have not seen. The Black Lives Matter movement, coupled with the power of social media to chronicle police brutality, has made it impossible for socially conscious athletes to continue to stay silent. In 2014, NBA players LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Jarrett Jack, Alan Anderson, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose and Kevin Garnett and NFL players from the Rams and Browns wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during warm-ups to protest police killings of unarmed blacks, and mostly received praise for their efforts. Kaepernick, on the other hand, has been taken to task for his protest; and I’ll get to why in a second.
Now, it’s easy to deride the ridiculous critiques of Kaepernick like the one below:
Obviously, high among the freedoms that those “thousands of men and women die protecting” is the freedom of speech, exactly what Kaepernick is exercising by refusing to stand for the national anthem – for his part, Kaepernick has now frequently said that he has “great respect for men and women that have fought for this country.” And then there are those who can somehow support Trump, who openly says that America is not great, and upbraid Kaepernick for using social protest to point to an obvious problem in the country. These are the people who deny that there are serious race issues in America, while supporting the flying of the confederate flag.
When LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Dwayne Wade took to the ESPY’s stage this summer after the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the shooting in Dallas that killed five police officers, many lauded the group of elite NBA players for their “inspired,” “powerful statement.” While it was certainly a much needed reaction to the tense state of race relations from some of the most powerful and influential African-American athletes in the world, it was far from a risky move, and the reaction it engendered demonstrated that it didn’t exactly make many feel uncomfortable.
I don’t mean to criticize James, Anthony, Paul and Wade, but what they said wasn’t much different than what you could read in the op-ed pages of any liberal newspaper, far from being provocative and controversial. But, social protest is not supposed to make us feel comfortable, it aims to raise awareness and spark change, to make us confront discomfiting realities. This lays bare the absurdity of the notion that Kaepernick only engaged in his protest as a bizarre publicity stunt, out of fear that he was not going to make his team. In reality, his protest is probably the worst career move he could have made. As Kevin Clark noted in The Ringer, social activism is noticeably limited in the NFL, due in large part to the league’s no-distraction culture. “[R]egardless of whether you feel Kaepernick’s decision to protest the anthem was honorable or shameful, it is significant. He is making the league uncomfortable because, despite thousands of players shuffling on and off NFL rosters, it rarely deals with anything like this,” Clark wrote. That culture is so regressive that NFL executives have called Kaepernick a “traitor” and compared him to former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth, who is currently in prison for murdering a pregnant woman.
Beyond the provocative nature of Kaepernick’s protest, fan demographics also play a major role in the outraged response. The NBA’s fan base is younger, more diverse and urban, with 45% of its viewers under 35. The NBA also has the largest share of black viewers among professional sports leagues at 45%, three times higher than the NFL. The NFL’s fan base is more conservative, older, more white and thus more likely to intertwine professional football and the military into a disturbing cocktail of patriotism on steroids.
Writing for ToM, Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis discussed the fusion between sports, the military and patriotism in the context of the Kaepernick controversy. If you’ve been to a major sporting event in the last few years, this is an undeniable reality, with fighter jet flyovers, advertisements for defense contractors like Boeing and Northrup Grumman flooding jumbotrons, and innumerable references to “honoring the troops” during lulls in play. For those who are uncomfortable with this type of jingoism, professional sporting events have become stomach-churning.
Belying all the criticisms of Kaepernick – “he was just trying to get attention,” “he’s rich and has no right to dishonor a country that has made him so,” “he’s not honoring those who died for our freedoms,” etc. – the 49ers quarterback has been remarkably steady and eloquent throughout. Soon after the controversy began to reach a fever pitch, he pledged to donate the first one million dollars he made this year to charities that aid communities in need. Meanwhile, as this story has dominated national attention, Kaepernick’s jersey sales have skyrocketed, and he has pledged to donate the proceeds “back to the communities.”
Colin Kaepernick, on plans to donate $1 million to communities & how today’s kneel-protest emerged pic.twitter.com/NMsp2gqZM7
— Cam Inman (@CamInman) September 2, 2016
All along, Kaepernick has been articulate about why he is engaging in this protest, and his actions since have demonstrated that he deeply cares about the issues at hand; this isn’t some public relations campaign to keep him in the limelight as his football career appears to fade. For so many Americans, sports are an escape from the drudgery of their day-to-day lives. So, when athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf puncture the wall between sports and politics and force us to confront uncomfortable realities, it’s no surprise that it foments outrage. Athletes, however, are some of the most prominent members of the African-American community, and uniquely placed to take a meaningful stand on social issues and push the conversation forward.
Writing in the Washington Post, NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar argued that the negative response reveals more about the offended party’s patriotism than Kaepernick’s. I suppose you can disagree with Kaepernick’s methods. But, then again, would we all still be discussing this issue if he told a reporter what he believes, or posted it on his Twitter? I doubt it. Indeed, it was the very controversial, provocative nature of his protest that made it a national story. Unfortunately for Kaepernick and black America, it seems his detractors care more about the symbolism of the protest – and the discomfort it provoked – than the substance of what sparked it.