San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision a few weeks ago to stop standing for the U.S. national anthem at the beginning of football games has done much to promote the discussion over minority rights, free speech, the role of professional sports in setting an example for other Americans, and Kaepernick’s motives in suddenly taking such a position now when most of his earning potential appears to be behind him. This is as it should be. But a number of pundits assumed a more extreme take on Kaepernick’s personal protest, calling it “courageous” and the act of a “true American”. Some have even drawn comparisons to Mohammad Ali’s protest against the military draft and elevation of the issue of discrimination against African Americans, offering it as a validation. Some even have mentioned Kaepernick and Martin Luther King in the same breath.
Wow. Heady stuff. But before we stumble over ourselves in showering Kaepernick with superlatives, let us take a step back from the issues Kaepernick purportedly is driven to bring attention to and look at the act itself. Because failing to stand up for the national anthem is not an act of courage. It is an act of cowardice.
Don’t tell me how much Kaepernick is being pilloried now that he has taken his unusual stand for his beliefs. Don’t regale me with pompous bleatings about the U.S. Constitution and how our forefathers enshrined the right of protest in the law of the land. And don’t tell me how nationalism is a poison that will lead this country down the hellish path of militant self-destruction. This issue isn’t about nationalism, or the sanctity of the national anthem, or the self-righteousness of flag waving patriots demanding the wayward to be tarred and feathered. No, this is about repudiation of the idea that we, as U.S. citizens, are all in this together, for better or worse. Standing for the anthem conveys a recognition that the country has problems, and probably always will, but that all of us are looking for solutions. Solutions that will elevate all the citizens together, as a rising tide that lifts all boats. Citizens do not say “fuck it” and pull their boat onto the beach and simmer like a petulant child, simultaneously demanding attention and rejecting scorn as being beneath them.
One should not sit for the national anthem any more than one drops their drawers and shits on the U.S. flag. This isn’t because there is anything sacrosanct about a piece of fabric, or the act of defilement even being particularly traitorous. After you can still burn the U.S. flag or copies of the U.S. constitution in most places in the country without fear of arrest. No, you stand for the anthem or your salute the flag because they represent an idea of solidarity among all Americans, regardless of who they are and their individual circumstances. Together U.S. citizens are going to relieve the oppressed and humble the high-and-mighty. That’s what we do, and that’s what Kaepernick should do too.
Stand up, Colin. Fortunately, Americans also believe in second chances.
3/2/17 postscript: Kaepernick, not happy with his prospects with the 49’ers for the 2017-2018 season, has opted out of his contract and is seeking a new team. Good luck: teams are telling him no thanks (article) and he has backed away from the kneeling controversy in a business decision.