Just over a month has passed since the San Francisco 49ers player, Colin Kaepernick, refused to stand for the national anthem at a pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers. Kaepernick’s refusal sparked extensive backlash across America, including criticisms for his lack of patriotism and for disrespecting his country, the military, police officers and the flag. The National Football League (NFL) and American sports fans continue to debate Kaepernick’s decision, as part of a wider on-going controversy about race in America.
Whilst many labelled him as a traitor, others rushed defensively to his side and whilst many fans torched his jersey, many more flocked to buy his shirt off the NFL website. Kaepernick has caught the nation’s attention, but how effective has he been in continuing the conversation about race in America?
Since the Green Bay game, Kaepernick has inspired several other similar protests across America, including by fellow NFL players, student athletes, and soccer player Megan Rapinoe. The shooting of black teenager Michael Brown two years ago by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked a surge of ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests, and so Kaepernick’s stance has helped push the conversation about race even further into the national consciousness. A few days after the Green Bay game when addressing the media, Kaepernick stressed that he wanted to start a conversation about race, claiming he already had done so with his teammates and now wanted people to do the same nationally.
Katheryn Russell-Brown, a law professor at the University of Florida, has noted that although “we are talking about the anthem” the bigger issues raised by Kaepernick are still being ignored. Americans are not comfortable talking about things “across racial lines” and although people are talking about racial issues, they are “only doing so with people of their own race”. Yet Gregg Popovich, a key National Basketball Association (NBA) figure, said the most important thing Kaepernick and others who followed him have done, is “to keep it in the conversation” as Popovich believes change will only happen through continued political pressure.
There has been an element of controversy about how the NFL and the 49ers have handled Kaepernick’s actions. Some sports fans are infuriated that the NFL is allowing such protest to take place without benching or fining the players responsible. Arguably, the NFL is the perfect platform to draw attention to racial issues. No other league (bar the NBA) is so dominated by African American athletes. Nor is any other league so intertwined into America as a nation. The 49ers stated that they respected the American principles of freedom of expression and “the right of an individual” to choose whether to participate or not in celebration of the national anthem, but that the anthem will always remain a “special part” of the pre-game ceremony. While Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner, also agreed that Kaepernick has a right to protest, he added, “we believe strongly in patriotism in the NFL”.
Significantly, 2016 marks the centenary of the order by President Woodrow Wilson that America’s national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner”, be played at military and other official state events. However, Kaepernick has reintroduced an old controversy concerning the meaning of the anthem’s often forgotten third verse. Those who have come to Kaepernick’s defence have cited what has been termed as a “celebration” of slavery, found in the lyrics. Written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812, the third verse quotes “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave”. From his protest, Kaepernick has brought up the issue of whether the legacy of black slavery is enshrined in the third verse to the forefront of conversation again.
The recent Rio Olympics gave America an opportunity to display their power and superiority to the rest of the world by topping the medals table. However Gabby Douglas, a world-class African American gymnast, was accused of her lack of patriotism for not putting her hand on her heart as the anthem played during a medal ceremony. And so despite America’s sporting excellence, such controversial actions by great sporting figures like Douglas and Kaepernick have brought the country back down to reality, forcing America to face its ever-growing racial issues. Just as Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium, with their fists raised in the air at the 1968 Summer Olympics as a salute to Black Power, and just as Muhammad Ali instantly became a nationally polarizing figure when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War, Kaepernick has shown the world again just how troubled America’s race relations are. Yet the question remains, how many more sporting figures will it take before significant change takes place?
Kaepernick has said he will continue to remain seated during the national anthem for as long as he feels is appropriate and until he witnesses significant progress in America, particularly in terms of race relations. The only concern is that he may be kneeling for a long time yet.