By now every pundit in America has sounded off on the Colin Kaepernick debate. The topic has been discussed by every talking head on every talk show, printed in every newspaper, posted on every blog, gossiped about around every water cooler in every office, conversed around every dinner table, and I’m sure personal opinions have also been voiced around every NFL locker room as well. It’s a topic that’s so divisive in nature that it continues to gain more and more momentum every time it is discussed. It’s the type of topic that transcends sports and we all have an opinion on it.
As we all know by now, Colin Kaepernick has refused to stand and salute the American flag during the pregame ceremony before NFL kickoffs. The San Francisco 49er has also made it clear that he will continue to do so. The quarterback is protesting racial injustices that have occurred in our country for generations (and continue to occur). In other words, Kaepernick has made it clear that he wants no part of this America. Some think he’s being courageous for this maneuver; whereas others think he’s Slater from Dazed and Confused. Of course such a demonstration has prompted public outrage from his fans. Not to mention private groans from the NFL brass behind closed doors.
As we see every Sunday on television, the NFL collects huge sponsorship endorsements from the US military every year. To an extent, the NFL could be considered the US Military’s little brother. However, considering the NFL to be a microcosm of our military is the wrong perception. Sure on the surface level there are several striking similarities. The most famous NFL quotes from coaches are often comparing the sport to warfare. Close games are called battles. Head Coaches are revered as brilliant Generals. Quarterbacks are seen commanding their players like fearless Field Generals directing their platoon. Even the use of strategy within the playbook and the formations the players lineup in are similar to a military man’s coveted blue print to conquer their enemy. The list goes on and on….training camps are pretty much boot camps, draft rooms are war rooms, that shifty third down back is another weapon in the arsenal, a player that leaves one team for a rival is a traitor. In other words, the comparisons are endless. I mean name one other sport that dedicates a week or more to camouflage-clad cheerleaders, paratroopers falling from the sky, fighter jets buzzing over the stadium, and that US Military crest front and center on the field? Besides from beer, fantasy daily sites, and maybe a few shoe companies, nobody advertises more for football games than our US Military. Oh, and did I mention that the most traditional college football game is between two of our main branches? You get the point. The military and the NFL have been in alliance with each other for generations and as fans many of us perceive that when we are saluting the flag we are also paying our respect to these heroes for their service.
However, as much as we love the game and the brutality of it all, it’s important to remember that although football is an extremely militant sport it does not directly represent our military. And that flag on the field, although it’s a symbol of freedom and thankfulness for those that served, is not the military’s flag. It’s our flag. Every citizen regardless of race, religious creed, gender, class, military service, etc.. has the same right to salute it or turn their back on it. And however much this notion might piss you off, it’s our right to treat that flag however we choose to treat it. I’m not going to go into a First Amendment rant right now, but we all know what freedoms our country provides to the citizens of this fine nation. The freedom of choice is a wonderful thing even when we don’t like the choices we make (like Trump vs. Hillary). So when Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand and salute those stars and stripes in millions of American eyes he also said he wouldn’t support these ideals that many of us hold dear to our heart. However, we shouldn’t be too quick to jump to conclusions. We shouldn’t be too quick to judge him, throw stones, or burn somebody in effigy without respecting this right as an American. We should try to remember that we all come from different backgrounds, lives, families, experiences, uphold different values that we feel are important, etc.. To say that one opinion or experience matters more than another is where the problem starts. Ironically, it seems that both sides of this debate are guilty of this.
I apologize for my bluntness, but on one extreme side of the debate we have the red-blooded ‘Mericans. The men and women sporting their Trump hats, Budweiser cans, and American flag tank tops. These people are probably going muddin’ next weekend or gathering around a shooting range with their Kaepernick cutouts for target practice. In other words, when it comes to this debate, they pretty much want Kaepernick kicked over Trump’s imaginary wall right about now. It’s their right to think Kaepernick is a dickweed. On the other side, you have the blue-blooded folks of America. These men and women are sporting hipster hats, PBR cans, and maybe riding on a bike that has a weaved basket on it while the wind blows through their unshaved armpits. They’re probably on their way to a drum circle on the beach to dance around in drug-induced circles glorifying Kaepernick for expressing his rights and taking a stand against the Man. They want Kaepernick to not only continue doing what he’s doing, but they probably also want him to buy and manage their local dispensary. These people see Kaepernick as a martyr. This nation is in the middle of the most bizarre tug of war we’ve seen since the Civil War and unfortunately it’s not gonna end even by November. The truth is that neither side is 100% right. But neither is 100% wrong either.
Regardless of which side of the debate you represent, Kaepernick legally has a right to do whatever the fuck he wants to do. He’s a grown man, a professional athlete, a celebrity of sorts, a role model to both the oppressed and the misguided. If Kaepernick wants to wear rainbow colored socks, a black leather glove on his throwing hand, and carry around a signed picture of Vladimir Putin riding horseback shirtless then that’s his right as an American. Of course it doesn’t mean we have to agree with it or respect it. Of course it also means it could come at a price. LA Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher put it pretty well on this season of Hard Knocks when he explained to his new players what the National Anthem meant to him (this was weeks before this debacle). Fisher summed it up by saying that the anthem is about respect: self-respect, respect for your teammates, respect for the game, and respect for this country. It seems as if by Fisher’s account that Kaepernick is ignoring pretty much all of these respects. Self-respect…it’s a polarizing debate, but I think most would agree that Kaep’s going about it in the wrong way. Respect for the game….I can’t imagine the NFL is too pleased with this predicament. Respect for his teammates….he’s sitting alone over there when the rest of the guys aren’t with him. Respect for his country…well he nixed this one in his press conferences.
As much attention as the respect for country debate has made, I’d like to shift the focus to the respect for the game and his teammates. As we all know in our respected professions, sometimes there are some serious ramifications for the actions we choose to make as individuals. Take Kaepernick’s current predicament as an example. He has a new boss, has had several setbacks from his recovery from surgery, has been held out of several practices for having a “dead arm”, and he has the worst contract currently on any NFL team’s payroll. In fact his contract is so bad most NFL personalities were surprised he wasn’t released or traded already by the 49ers several months ago. In other words, Kaepernick, the once promising young superstar QB, is now on the brink of destruction. However, perhaps most relevant of all, Kaepernick is the backup QB of the 49ers and is more of a project at this point for new coach Chip Kelley then a working part of the team.
So the overpaid, disappointing, injury-prone backup quarterback expects to rally the team behind his personal stance on American politics? Kaepernick was quoted as saying that he hopes that his teammates take a stand with him. Although Kaepernick has some undeniable points about social injustice and although several other players and even teams are open to taking a stand, I can see a few problems with this tactic. For starters, it seems that his actions are solely about his feelings and not that of the team’s collective thought. Perhaps Kaepernick has a valid point in his stance against saluting the flag. Perhaps he has had his own experiences of racial injustice. Perhaps he has some friends and teammates that have experienced this as well. If not then others certainly have. But perhaps he could help alleviate this problem through actions rather than just sitting on the sideline. I mean one game check from Kaepernick and any other disgruntled professional athlete could fix several inner city community’s problems. But perhaps Kaepernick isn’t thinking about his teammates or the game with his decision to sit out the anthem. Perhaps it’s about something more than sports. Or perhaps it’s just about Kaepernick.
I suppose it just depends on which side of the fence you’re sitting on. Do you want to burn Kaepernick for his actions or burn one down with him? To me patriotism is the right to make this choice. For some folks, the flag is the most important symbol in their life. They honor it, the salute it, it’s something greater than them. To others, the flags is sometimes something to resent. Broken promises, etc…regardless it does not represent the values they hold dear. Perhaps that’s the true beauty of sports. Regardless of social beliefs, politics, upbringing, cultural background, or ethnicity, it brings us together for a few hours to cheer for a common goal. Even when we disagree on issues like this.
But in my opinion the flag isn’t something you should turn your back on. Last night I watched the History Channel until the wee hours of the morning. I watched old footage from 9/11. I watched firefighters run into burning buildings, grieving families crying in the streets while posting up pictures of loved ones, police officers attempting to secure a smoke filled perimeter, and the twisted steel debris of a structure that did not look like anything that was once iconic. It’s been fifteen years since this terrible day in American history and during the darkness there was a light at the end of the tunnel. To some it was the flag. To others it was the warm embrace of family members and friends during a hard time in their lives. But to all of us it was in some type of way just simply being American. We’re not a perfect nation. We have our flaws and our bad eggs just like anywhere. However, that flag has always represented something special to me. It’s not about where you are, but about where you want to be. We’re not there yet, but we’ve made a lot of progress over a short period of time. The flag will continue to embody this hope for me.
Perhaps Kaepernick will be reminded of these things today. Or perhaps not. After all, it is his choice.