Just over a week ago a professional football player (Colin Kaepernick, but let’s call him Kaep for short) decided that he wasn’t going to stand during the National Anthem because he believes that people of color are being mistreated by police. This simple act of protest became the most prominent sports story for the next week and counting. People from all corners of society weighed in on Kaep’s action and a fair bit of exchange ensued. Most discussion sadly focused on whether Kaep should or shouldn’t protest in this way rather than on the issue that Kaep was trying to raise awareness of. A few days later it was revealed that Kaep has also been wearing socks during practice which depict “pigs” wearing police uniforms. Immediately, a huge outcry was heard denouncing Kaep for this disrespectful showing, even from many that felt the initial “sitting” protest was admirable. Within a day of this “revelation,” Kaep kneeled during the anthem (an act expressing his respect to those that serve in the military), performed well in the preseason game that followed, and announced afterwards that he would be donating $1 million (of his $11 million annual salary) to the causes that he was bringing attention to. Many saw this “gift” as a gesture of Kaep’s commitment to the issues and many praised him for this significant offering. And now there are reports out that Kaep’s jersey sales are way up, and some evidence of a new found admiration of his recent actions. We are only a few days into this Kaep activity and the regular NFL season starts in a matter of days (although it isn’t clear how prominent a role Kaep will play on his team, his stock slipping mightily since he took the 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl). Yet, very few athletes have gotten so much mileage out of what otherwise would seem like a very mundane action. How so? And what does it tell us about our modern society?
Were Kaep’s actions so courageous and, hence, worthy of such attention? Let’s look at what Kaep did in basic terms. He refused to stand for the National Anthem. He wore mocking socks to football practice a few times. He then changed his anthem stance from a sit to a kneel. These are very minor acts at some level. They require very little effort. And, they weren’t dangerous. Now, let’s compare Kaep’s actions to Dale American Horse Jr. who locked himself to a backhoe in North Dakota in protest of the pipeline that is being built to transport oil from the North Central Plains to states further south. (Here is more on this story that probably got 1/1,000th of the coverage that Kaep has received, link). Dale American Horse Jr. performed this action knowing that it was a violation of U.S. law and that a host of police would extricate him from the machine and charge him with a criminal offense, with unknown penalties, financial or jail time. On the face of it, it would appear that Dale American Horse Jr. faced much greater danger in more unpredictable circumstances–many other protesters were pepper sprayed and some, including children, were bitten by dogs “managed” by security agents. However, while Dale American Horse Jr.’s actions are definitely risky and courageous, Kaep, a well-known professional athlete, risked the loss of corporate endorsements and even his professional career (and its lucrative salary) by falling out of favor with the corporate executives that own NFL teams. He also risked eliciting the wrath and boos of millions of American’s who find his actions (and words) offensive. But, even still, an unspecified jail sentence seems like a lot more ominous than a loss of millions of dollars (but that is probably because I don’t have millions to lose).
If not so courageous, what explains the attention? I contend that it occurred because Kaep’s act is contentious. The modern media loves a good debate (as long as the parameters stay within a relatively narrow box; for example, we are not going to debate the sources of abject poverty in our country, the “richest” in the world, because that would implicate the same large corporations that run our media outlets). Kaepernick was a well-enough known celebrity to draw consumer gazes in a specific direction. Nearly all media now are full of advertisements and news outlets are competing harder and harder for this gaze; this explains the sensationalism that permeates media today. But why would not standing during the anthem cause such a storm? It is because many people in our society have developed a visceral attachment to the U.S. flag; recall the post 9-11 flag frenzy. To do anything to disrespect the U.S. is considered blasphemous to some. To others, the flag, the most recognizable symbol of the United States, deserved disrespect because of the outrageous things that have been done it its name (mass incarceration, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib, My Lai, etc.). To these people, how better to show your disapproval of the actions of a nation than to desecrate its “sacred” image. Either way, mess with the flag and you’ll get attention, tie yourself to oil machinery and just let the local authorities handle this one (certainly no need for national exposure); facetiousness intended.
The surprising attention to Kaep also stems from the immense amount of attention that we give to sports these days. Athletes are household names. Most people probably know the starting quarterback on their cities team more so than they know who their U.S. Senators are. Certainly, most care more about what the QB does than what the Senator does (as long as it isn’t something scandalous, such as sexting). And given this heightened position, it makes sense that Kaepernick, and other athletes, might use it for some social good. For example, I am just some lowly professor (who makes less than 1% of what Kaep will make this year). I am likely not going to get any attention if I do something like not standing for the National Anthem or wear some offensive socks. I might get the scorn of people around me but no one who lives in a neighboring town will ever know that I am “protesting.” However, if I were a world-renown scholar, then I would likely consider protesting for my beliefs. (There certainly are a lot of things worth protesting for.) The point is this: athletes are so prominent in our lives (even more so than most of our political leaders), is it any wonder why we coast along in this economic malaise without much of a hiccup?
In the end, I am thankful that some well-to-do people, be them athletes or not, are willing to sacrifice their millions for a higher calling. Our culture has such a short attention span. A mass shooting occurs and that keeps its grip on it for a week or two, then we are back to normal. Structural racism has been hard at work in this country for nearly 400 years (when the first African slaves arrived on this land). Kaep’s effort to keep it in our consciousness is worthy of praise not scorn. Whether it will result in a positive outcome remains to be seen. And as much as we should focus on his efforts/words, we cannot forget the others that struggle mightily for justice elsewhere but simply due to their “less favorable’ (and visible) status have their battle cries go unheard.