I’m not here to comment on whether or not Colin Kaepernick is a patriot.
Why? Because I’m white.
As Kaepernick puts his knee to the gridiron and closes his eyes during those first trumpeted notes of the national anthem, he contemplates stereotypes, fears, anxieties and obstacles that I could never fathom. He pictures the faces of people that looked just like him, splashed onto TV screens as the newest tragic casualties of police brutality.
My America is not the same as Kaepernick’s America. The same goes for so many white fans and journalists calling his gesture everything from disrespectful to a heinous affront to veterans and current service members.
Why are these onlookers so outraged about one football player’s refusal to participate in traditional patriotic rituals?
Patriotism is intertwined with professional sports at a deep, historic and sometimes disturbing level that forces vibrant, visible displays of patriotism into professional competition.
The NFL in particular makes it a priority to perform ceremonies dedicated to the nation’s military. The league also serves as a prominent vehicle for recruitment advertising for the armed forces. Patriotic ceremonies and recruitment advertising are supposed to be kept completely separate when it comes to funding. Teams are supposed to finance things like on-field color guard out of their own genuine desire to honor their country. The Department of Defense pays for its own marketing, like stadium signage, just as any other advertiser would.
But in 2015, a Senate report revealed that delineation has been blurred. The Department of Defense spent a total of $10.4 million on advertising and marketing contracts with professional sports teams between 2012 and 2015. According to the report, 59 percent of those contracts contained money for “paid patriotism.” That means the DOD paid the NFL and other leagues to perform “on-field color guard, enlistment and re-enlistment ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, full-field flag details, ceremonial first pitches and puck drops, and hometown hero and wounded warrior tributes.”
Fans that figured NFL teams put on these displays solely out of their own patriotic fervor, assumed wrong. Countless other motivations may have led to the unfurling of a huge flag on the field during pre-game — tradition, desire to appease fans and, perhaps most alarmingly, the need to preserve DOD advertising contracts worth millions of dollars.
When team owners and administrators submit to performing acts of national pride for less-than-patriotic reasons, they rope players into that practice as well. They reinforce the assumption — in very elaborate, in-your-face ways — that sports and traditional expressions of patriotism go hand in hand. This compels most players to cover their hearts, stand up, shut up and just play football.
In a modern sports world, where branding is everything and players risk losing huge endorsement deals over any type of protest, activism is often viewed as too much of a liability. Protests of patriotism are particularly taboo. But when the majority of players in the league are racial minorities who witness and experience daily injustice, how can sponsors expect them to display patriotism without a second thought?
Every once in a while, an athlete emerges that is willing to risk money, fame and being called unpatriotic to protest discrimination. While they endure sometimes career-ending consequences in the moment, hindsight usually allows these athletes’ critiques to be correctly construed as love for country and a desire to use their high-profile status to push America to be better.
When Muhammad Ali protested Vietnam War service, he was disparaged as a draft dodger. When Ali died in June 2016, his protest of the draft was lauded as part of his legacy as one of the great activist athletes of the civil rights era.
Tommie Smith, an Olympic track athlete who later became a track and field coach at Oberlin, protested the national anthem at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Smith and teammate John Carlos took to the podium, after medaling in the 200-meter dash, in bare feet to symbolize the hardships of minority poverty. They raised black-gloved fists and turned their eyes downward as the flag rose. Smith returned home to intense criticism. His Olympic career was over. But today, his Black-power salute is the cornerstone of his legacy.
Kaepernick’s similar, fearless attempts to agitate for change have already sparked imitation among his peers. Players from the Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos have all knelt or raised fists in solidarity with Kaepernick. Several of those players have continued to show solidarity despite lost endorsement deals. For example, CenturyLink and the Air Academy Federal Credit Union cut ties with Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall after he protested the anthem.
Still, Kaepernick’s team, the 49ers, is showing that perhaps the tide is turning against forced patriotism in sports. The 49ers have acknowledged Kaepernick’s first amendment right to do whatever he pleases during the anthem, and donated $1 million to a foundation working toward “improving racial and economic inequality and fostering communication and collaboration between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” according to a statement from 49ers’ Chief Executive Jed York.
Condoning Kaepernick’s actions does not mean patriotism has no place in sports. However, patriotism should never be forced by the government’s hand. And room for different types of displays of patriotism must be granted.
After all, Kaepernick’s actions come not from a desire to tear down his homeland, but from a genuine belief that protest can bring improvement to a broken system.
Kaepernick protests one of the core symbols of America not because he is unpatriotic. He protests because he expects better from the land that he loves. He knows change is possible. And until that change comes, he will keep his knee to the ground.