Patriots are not only men and women who risk their lives to protect our freedoms on the battlefield. They’re also people who risk their lives, careers and reputations here at home to protect our freedoms and strive for a more perfect union.
On Aug. 26, San Francisco 49ers quarterback (and Milwaukee native) Colin Kaepernick showed his patriotism in an usual way: He risked his career by refusing to stand for the national anthem before a preseason game with the Packers. His action was intended to draw attention to the ongoing injustices suffered by African Americans and other minorities. And it did.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Kaepernick also stirred discussions about the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression, a major underpinning of our democracy and the freedoms it affords. Even prominent people who disagreed with the quarterback’s action defended his right to do it. While this reaction was far from universal, it was widespread enough to show how far the nation has come in First Amendment awareness since the sit-ins of the black civil rights movement, which met with brutality and repression.
It’s been a few years since football stars Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo put their careers on the line for same-sex marriage. Since then, we’ve been besieged by negative stories of athletes involved in rapes, shootings, domestic violence and cheating. Against that backdrop, Kaepernick reminded us of the power that sports figures have to influence progress, simply by standing up — or sitting down — courageously for civil rights.
Kaepernick has been joined by a growing number of other athletes. He’s refined his protest strategy, kneeling rather than sitting during the anthem in an apparent reference to the quarterback move of “taking a knee.”
In an op-ed he wrote for The Washington Post, basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul Jabbar presented a compelling defense of the quarterback’s silent protest, which has met with controversy, most of it from whites.
“What should horrify Americans is not Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated during the national anthem,” he wrote, “but that nearly 50 years after Ali was banned from boxing for his stance (on the Vietnam War) and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised fists (supporting the black power movement at the Olympics in 1968) caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.”
President Barack Obama seemed to concur, when he pointed out that Kaepernick is only the latest in a long line of athletes trying to highlight issues of social justice. “I’d rather have young people who are engaged in the argument and trying to think through how they can be part of our democratic process than people who are just sitting on the sidelines not paying attention at all,” Obama said.
We hope more athletes will sit — or kneel — in support of Kaepernick, until his message becomes too ubiquitous to ignore.
What could be more patriotic than trying to better our nation?