God bless Colin Kaepernick!
I'd almost given up on watching the San Francisco 49ers this year when the former starting quarterback sparked a national uproar by refusing to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner” at preseason NFL football games.
When asked why he was not standing by NFL Media after the Niners loss to Green Bay on Aug. 26, Kaepernick went full Black Lives Matter.
"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."
In our current racially-charged political climate, the biracial quarterback's comments set off a firestorm of criticism. In a matter of hours, videos of now former Kaepernick fans burning expensive Kaepernick replica jerseys with “The Star-Spangled Banner” playing in the background proliferated on You Tube. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump suggested Kap might do better in another country. Conservative commentators accused him of spitting on the troops and sympathizing with cop killers, labeling him a traitor, hypocrite and worse.
I'll admit I got a little caught up in the hoopla at first. I'm a Kaepernick fan, but know that despite the fact he's guaranteed a base salary of $11.9 million this season, he's been struggling to regain the form that made him one of the league's most exciting players just a few short seasons ago, when he took the Niners to the Super Bowl. He didn't suit-up the first two preseason games because of injuries and played only a few downs against Green Bay. Nevertheless, I was still hoping for a comeback when he reached out and touched the third rail of American sports, the national anthem.
Since at least 1968, when African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists during a medal ceremony at the summer Olympics in Mexico City, it's been no secret that using the traditional playing of the national anthem at sporting events to make a political point is to risk career suicide. I couldn't help thinking that Kap, knowing there's a chance he might not make the team, had decided to take advantage of his celebrity status while he still can and had staged an extremely ill-advised political stunt.
Or perhaps someone had taken advantage of his remaining celebrity status. From whom might this ill advice have come? According to the conservative website Daily Caller, it was MTV DJ and Black Lives Matter activist Nessa Diab, Kaepernick's Muslim girlfriend, whom he's been dating since last summer. That quickly spun up into a false rumor that Kaepernick, whose body is liberally tattooed with biblical passages, had converted to Islam during the off-season. Someone Photoshopped him to look like Osama Bin Laden. He now throws the Allahu Akbar instead of the Hail Mary. It was clear he was taking orders from BLM or ISIS, but which one?
To be sure, while the majority of public opinion appears to be running against the beleaguered quarterback, there's been no shortage of pundits, mostly left-leaning, supporting the notion that America is a nation founded on white supremacy and the body of black slaves, as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” composed by the slave-owning Frances Scott Key in 1814, reminds us every time it's played.
(For the record, I've never cared for the tune musically and have long supported replacing it with “America the Beautiful.”)
Lost in the spin, hyperbole and identity politics is why we play the national anthem at sporting events in the first place; namely, to promote national solidarity. That may sound a bit quaint in the age of open borders and globalism, but the 49ers got it correct when it acknowledged Kaepernick's right to express his political opinion, even if the organization doesn't necessarily agree with him.
“The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony,” the team stated in a press release. “It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose to participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”
For his part, Kaepernick denies being influenced by any one individual or organization, even though his remarks regarding police officers are clearly from the Black Lives Matter playbook. He appears oblivious to the fact the targeting killings of police officers during the past few months, inspired in part by BLM rhetoric, has turned public opinion decisively away from the activist group. In one recent practice, he wore socks depicting police officers as cartoon pigs. He claims to be surprised by the volume of the negativity directed his way.
“It wasn’t something that I really planned as far as it blowing up,” he said in an Aug. 28 national press conference. “It was something that I personally decided – I just can’t stand what this [the national anthem] represents right now. It’s not right. And the fact that it has blown up like this, I think it’s a good thing. It brings awareness.”
The problem is that Americans haven't been as racially aware as they are now since 1968, the year Martin Luther King was assassinated, the inner cities burned and a pair of African-American sprinters held their black-gloved fists high as the national anthem played in Mexico City. We've become painfully aware. It's as if nothing has changed in 50 years. Sadly, in many cases they haven't.
“These aren’t new situations,” Kaepernick explained. “This isn’t new ground. There are things that have gone on in this country for years and years and have never been addressed, and they need to be.”
He doesn't see either of the two major party candidates fixing our racial divide, a fact that's been lost in the partisan ruckus.
“You have Hillary who has called black teens or black kids super predators, you have Donald Trump who’s openly racist,” he said. “We have a presidential candidate who has deleted emails and done things illegally and is a presidential candidate. That doesn’t make sense to me because if that was any other person you’d be in prison. So, what is this country really standing for?”
These days, that's a hard question with no easy answers. After watching Kaepernick's performance against the San Diego Chargers in the final preseaon game last Thursday night, I feel much more confident predicting his future with the 49ers.
The broadcast began with the anthem already playing—perhaps to mask out the boos reported by some sources—and Kap taking a knee instead of sitting. It was an interesting adjustment, making him appear humble rather than militant, the full afro he's grown out during the offseason framing his head like a halo. He's lost a little weight—from converting to Veganism, not Islam—and looks less intimidating and perhaps somewhat pallid.
The Niners won the toss and Kap proceeded to lead the team down the field on a 16-play, 85-yard touchdown drive. He completed six out of eight passes for 58 yards and cracked off three runs for 30 yards, including one 20-yard scamper showing signs of the old brilliance. I had expected him to be rattled from stress caused by the controversy, but with the exception of some rust on timing routes, he looked as smooth as he has in two years. He went three-and-out on the next drive and on the third drive took the team down the field again for a touchdown, just as the half ended. He looked like the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.
Asked if the national anthem controversy has been a distraction, Kaepernick swore it hasn't.
“No, I don’t see it being a distraction,” he said. “It’s something that can unify this team. It’s something that can unify this country. If we have these real conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people. If we have these conversations, there’s a better understanding of where both sides are coming from.”
I don't know about all that, but I guarantee you Kaepernick makes the cut.