Since Colin Kaepernick bravely opted to sit during Friday’s national anthem, there has been an overwhelming reaction of disdain. Most of it has been focused on the impassioned, yet misguided, claim that Kaepernick’s action was disrespectful to the military.
His former teammate, Alex Boone, provided the most pointed response.
“That flag obviously gives [Kaepernick] the right to do whatever he wants,” said Boone, now a member of the Minnesota Vikings. “I understand it. At the same time, you should have some [expletive] respect for people who served, especially people that lost their life to protect our freedom.”
What Boone and others fail to understand are the possible layers of thought when it comes to the anthem. You can sit for the anthem because you protest certain actions of your country, but still love it, and still respect the men and women who fight for its freedom.
"I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country," Kaepernick stoically said during a media session Sunday. He then turned to the actual purpose for his decision not to stand for the anthem: to protest what he believes is widespread oppression and brutality carried out largely by the police against minorities.
If you think about it, it’s a fascinating exercise to join together with 80,000 other people and recite an ancient, honorary song about such an increasingly complex country. “The Star Spangled Banner”, composed 50 years before slavery was abolished, should rightfully evoke different feelings in different people. Perhaps an immigrant appreciative of the better life America has afforded her family is sitting next to parents of an Iraqi War vet delighting in the freedom the military protects every day. Kaepernick’s lens is, in his words, that “there are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust, people aren't being held accountable for.”
A related criticism of Kaepernick is that an NFL stadium is no place for political protest. The whole “stick to sports” mantra is such a funny, hypocritical concept, particularly when it comes to the NFL, a body that aims to project an apolitical image, and certainly discourages individuality in its players.
Here’s the problem. Like it or not, the NFL is a hub of political discourse. As its footprint has exponentially grown, the league has been forced to take societal stances on DV and LGBT rights, and been thrust into hot-button legal issues like labor rights, antitrust, and player safety. But nowhere has that political messaging become more prevalent than inside that stadium during its omnipresent embracing of the military.
On Sundays, a large American flag stretches the length of the field, oftentimes held by military members. Enlisted members hold emotional, public reunions with loved ones. There are enlisting events, a Salute to Service week, live cutaways to military members during Thanksgiving ‘s highly viewed lineups, national announcers thanking the troops, and players adorning ribbons. Heck, the Washington Redskins even started incorporating “God Bless America” into its Americana package last season.
No amount of military appreciation has seemingly been too much, and we recently learned why: the Defense Department paid over $700,000 to the league between 2012-15 to be its propaganda machine. In the process, the national anthem at NFL games has become synonymous with paying respect to the military.
Secret payment aside, there is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with honoring the military at a sporting event. No group deserves it more. But that does not mean those who are honored have ownership over patriotism and our anthem.
The very reason the criticism that Kaepernick “disrespected the troops” is unfair is because his critics are projecting what the national anthem means to them. There is no objective meaning of the anthem, and Kaepernick is perfectly legitimate in protesting what it means to him.
Think about it: Michael Phelps stands on the gold medal podium in Rio for the fifth time while the anthem plays, and we might think about freedom, opportunity or more likely, his sheer athletic domination. But when it’s played before an NFL game, usually while a member of the military is holding an American flag, oftentimes seconds after a section of military members has been announced to uproarious applause, the connection between the anthem and the military is eventually going to be ingrained in people.
But for Kaepernick, there simply was no connection. Rather, his was a protest many months in the making. His Instagram and Twitter followers know this after seeing his accounts monopolized with inspirational clips of Malcolm X, comforting quotes from 2Pac, and anger at the latest report of police discrimination. His continuous devotion to the cause is even more admirable considering how our typical cycle of social-racial-political outrage is typically heightened with the latest viral video, and cools off soon thereafter.
Kaepernick has remained enflamed, and his protests should be placed in this larger context. Let’s not misread it as disrespect for the military.