I can only imagine the anxiety the young quarterback must have felt as the team walked out from under the protection of the dark tunnel and out onto the field. The quivering butterflies in the stomach, the dry mouth, as teammates walked by patting each other on the shoulder or rear offering encouragement for the contest that was to come. It was that time of year again, autumn, football season, the opening contest of a sixteen-week campaign. As Colin Kaepernick stared down at his cleats, the preseason game he was about to play in was the last thing on his mind. Colin was thinking instead of Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and Walter Scott just to name a few of the victims of police shootings that occurred in 2015.
I’m sure he was also thinking of the consequences of the action he was about to take. I’m not sure he expected the fallout to be so immediate and fierce, but it was. It was a crisp autumn night, and the temperature was steadily dropping, perfect weather for football. As game time drew near players and coaches gathered on the sideline and prepared to pay homage to our great nation. The men stood and stiffened and placed their hands over their heart or respectfully behind their backs. Heads bowed as the start of the national anthem begun. Colin Kaepernick would not stand. He could not stand and honor the symbol of oppression for so many.
As the last notes of the national anthem float skyward and faded into the purplish-black night, the firestorm began. I don’t believe Colin Kaepernick ever intended to be the face of a movement. I think this is a guy who woke up one morning and heard about yet another senseless killing of an unarmed African American citizen and simply decided to make a stand in the best way he knew how. Why, you ask, would a young, rich, professional athlete who from any rational outside observation appears to have it all decided to one day refuse to stand for the national anthem?
His explanation was simple and to the point. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” (Wyche) Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “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.”(Wyche) I would guess that there are millions of African Americans that feel that same way about the national anthem.
In 2015 more than 102 unarmed African Americans were shot and killed by the police. (Mapping Police Violence). Unarmed African American and Hispanics being gunned, protest in major cities, minorities are skeptical about receiving any form of justice or accountability from behind the blue wall of silence. I didn’t see the first game that Colin Kaepernick’s protest began, but everyone I know was talking about it. Luckily I have the NFL channel and I was able to go back and see what everyone was talking about. I got home from work grabbed me a cold adult beverage and settled in on my favorite sofa to watch my favorite sport. As the national anthem began I to ease forward on my seat in anticipation of what Kaepernick was about to not do. Even though I knew it was coming, it was still a bit of a shock for me to see a professional athlete refused to stand for the national anthem.
Honestly, I had never given Colin Kaepernick much thought before this. He plays for the 49ers and I’m a Bronco and Lions fan so the guy really wasn’t on my radar. Of course, I knew who he was, the guy can run like the wind and has a great arm. He is a top player just not one I followed. Kaepernick exploded onto the scene and took the national football league by storm a few years back taking his team to the playoffs and eventually to the Super Bowl where they lost. As the national anthem begins, I noticed in a sea of crimson and gold a singular player sitting on the bench, it was Colin Kaepernick. After watching the game, I couldn’t help but wonder what the big deal was all about.
I understand that it’s the national anthem, and it’s about respecting our flag and country, I get it. Honestly, after hearing him explain why he did it I found that I had a newfound respect for the guy. He didn’t run or try to hide. He sat at his locker after the game and looked the camera straight in the lens and said without any reservation and said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color” (Wyche).
Minorities being falsely arrested or murdered by peace officers is nothing new to the minority community. That sort of thing has been going on for generations. What is new, is the exposure of the abuse to the mainstream. People outside the black community are now seeing it for themselves. The ability to claim self-defense or you were afraid for your life when someone is running away doesn’t quite carry the same impacted once you see on film an unarmed man/woman die simply for being a minority in the wrong place at the wrong time. It hits you in the core of your being to see the bullet impact a person and they stagger to the ground dying, wondering why. It’s a troubling thing to witness. Despite making up only a fraction of the population 2% to be exact of African American males between the ages of 15 and 34 comprised more than 15% of all deaths logged this year by an ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force by police.
Their rate of police-involved deaths was five times higher than for white men of the same age. (Swaine) It’s even more troubling when no one is held accountable for the taking of an innocent life. Only 10 of the 102 cases in 2015 where an unarmed black person was killed by police resulted in officer(s) being charged with a crime, and only two of these deaths resulted in convictions of officers involved. (Swaine)
I remember an incident with my son when he was young. We were out taking a walk in our suburban neighborhood. It’s a cozy cove with rows of neatly stacked bungalows sitting behind rows of well-manicured lawns. It was autumn, so it was a getting cool, and the night was beginning to fall. My wife was wearing a jacket and my son and I was both wearing hoodies. Like most young kids at that age, my son was a bundle of energy and he just wanted to run ahead, I watched him for a moment as he ran ahead happily skipping and singing to himself. I noticed out of the corner of my eye a patrol car rolling by us. They slowed and eyed my wife and me for a moment then pulled ahead driving in the direction of my son.
I have never felt such a sense of fear and helplessness. I started to run after my son, but my wife grabbed my hand and whispered the police would only wonder why I was running and that could make the situation worse. She was terrified, so I stopped and called him instead. I prayed that they wouldn’t mistake him for someone and do something drastic, all they saw I know was a young black boy wearing a hoodie running. I quickly called my son again and told him to stop running and to come back. He stopped and looked at my wife and me with a blank confused expression. The police rode on without an incident, and we hurried home. I was furious and humiliated because I knew that I was going to have to do one of the hardest things I would ever have to do in my life. I had to take away a little of my son’s childhood.
My son stood before me and my wife with the wide-eyed innocence of a child as we struggle to find the words to explain to him that because of the color of our skin some policemen/women are going to view and treat him differently than some of his white friends. It was a life lesson that had to be taught way too soon, the rage inside me boiled as I fought back tears. This is not a conversation a parent should have to have with a child, but it’s a conversation that has happened or will happen in some form or another in every African American household at some point.
My friend called me a few days after I watched the game and asked me what I thought of the Kaepernick protest. The conversation began as they always did with us asking about the family, or wives, and children. He has three boys. His oldest is readjusting to society after being a guest of the state for a while. His second eldest is finalizing a divorce, and his youngest is starting to show signs of behavioral problems.
Still, the conversation was light and airy that is until the subject of Colin Kaepernick was broached. My friend asked me as a veteran was I just as offended by Kaepernick’s action as he was. I told him that I was not, which seemed to catch him by surprise. I understand why Kaepernick decided to do what he did, I explained to my stunned friend. That Kaepernick has a platform, and this is the way he chose to use it. My friend disagreed vehemently and argued that “What Kaep is doing is disrespecting to our troops and our country.”
I was taken aback. My friend had never displayed such passion for the troops or the flag for that matter before. We have known each other since we were both five and six years old and these were the very first semi-patriotic words that ever came out of his mouth. We grew up in the same neighborhood, the fact that he was white and I was black rarely, if ever, came up. As I listen to him discuss Kaepernick and how he should respect the flag no matter what made it clear to me that white people and black people live in separate Americas when it comes to the police and the legal system. His answers seemed so right-wing to me, and he had never before this night struck me in that way before.
We went back and forth about how it was or wasn’t disrespectful to the many men and women who serve. I tried to explain to him that those of us who served in the military fought not only to protect our country but to preserve the rights of an individual’s freedom in our country. We went around and around and the more we did the more he began to sound like one of those blathering anchors over on Fox News which was disturbing to me. He tried to hide his aggravation by making a joke about Donald Trump (who he voted for) not being fit to serve as president, but like I’ve said I have known this guy a long time and I knew he was hot. “Picture this,” I continued. “It’s Monday night and you’re at a professional Football game it’s the New England Patriots at the San Francisco 49ers. The stadium is bustling with excited fans. It’s three minutes to game time and the PA announcer comes on the loudspeaker and asks the eighty thousand fans to stand for the national anthem.
What if Tom Brady decided to take a knee during the national anthem? “He wouldn’t do that.” He quickly interjected. “But, what if he did?” I asked. There was a long silence on the other end of the phone before my friend answered. “I really don’t think he would do that.” He insisted. “Me either” I countered. “But what if he did?” after a short pause my friend answered as if I had taken all the wind out of his sails. “If Tom did that, he would be as bad as Kaep.” He said the words but they didn’t ring true. This is coming from a man I have known all my whole life who I know is no racist. It’s just an unconscious bias that we all have in one way or another.
The reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s protest to the national anthem was swift and for the most part harsh. My friend and I often live in two different Americas. He has never been accosted by police at gunpoint while walking with his wife simply because he looked out of place in his own neighborhood like me and millions of minorities do every day. There is a double standard and I can say with almost one hundred percent certainty that if this was Tom Brady, the reaction would be different. I’m not saying that there wouldn’t be those that disapproved. I believe they would be more muted.
I’m not sure there would be people questioning his motivation, or even his love for his country? This country has a history of disenfranchisement and bias against communities of color and to ignore it or pretend that it doesn’t exist is part of the problem. Discussing race has always been a difficult thing, but constructive dialogue and understanding is the only way that things are going to get better. Colin Kaepernick doesn’t hate his country and his protest has nothing to do with disrespecting the military. “I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country,” Kaepernick stoically said during a media session Sunday” (Jacobs). Is Colin Kaepernick an unlikely vessel to put the spotlight back on an issue, maybe. A person of color living in a predominately white community. In an interview with Mr. Porter in The Journal, Colin discussed his feelings of isolation as a child. “I knew I was different to my parents and my older brother and sister,” the San Francisco 49ers quarterback shared. “I never felt that I was supposed to be white. Or black, either. My parents just wanted to let me be who I needed to be”(Corsello). Kaepernick was adopted by white parents and raised in Wisconsin in a predominately white community.
Although his adopted family always treated him with love and respected the older he got the more the outside world began to see him first by the color of his skin. Kaepernick recalls an incident when he was a teenager on vacation with his family checking into a motel. As the family checked in Kaepernick found himself alone waiting for his family. Across the lobby, the manager would watch the tall minority teenager lingering in the lobby waiting. The nervous manager watching his every move until he could build up the nerve to ask the towering teen, ‘Excuse me. Is there something I can help you with?” (Corsello) Colin Kaepernick said he could no longer watch silently, he thought about it and decided to not stand for the national anthem as a way of protesting what is happening in the African American community. Protesting to bring about change, what could be more American than that?
Corsello, Andrew. “Mr. Colin Kaepernick.” Mr. Porter. Web. <https://www.mrporter.com/journal/the-look/mr-colin-kaepernick/535>.
Jacobs, Melissa. ““Don’t take Kaepernick’s protest as disrespect for military”.” Sports Illustrated. Web. <http://www.si.com/nfl/2016/08/29/colin-kaepernick-national-anthem-protest-49ers>.
Swaine, Jon. ““Young black men killed by US police at highest rate in the year of 1,134 deaths”.” the guardian. Web. <https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/31/the-counted-police-killings-2015-young-black-men>.
Wyche, Steve. “Colin Kaepernick explains why he sat during national anthem.” NFL.com. Aug. 28, 2016. Web. <http://www.nfl.com/news/story/0ap3000000691077/article/colin-kaepernick-explains-why-he-sat-during->.
Mapping Police Violence. “Unarmed Victims.” Mapping Police Violence. Web. <http://mappingpoliceviolence.org/unarmed/>.