As summer comes to a simmer and fall slowly creeps its way into our existence, both seasons battle for control of the climate. In Toronto, fall is struggling mightily as summer continues to maintain its unseasonably high temperature right into October. While this seasonal tug-of-war ensues, another act of defiance in the form of a seated protest is unfolding in the arena of the National Football League (NFL). Early in the season, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, decided that standing for the United States of America national anthem was no longer something he’d be taking part in. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour,” he stated.
Labour Day weekend of 2016 proved to be one of the most violent weekends in America’s recent history, as dozens of people in Chicago’s Southside lost their lives due to gunfire. The summer of 2016 also marked the two-year anniversary of the death of Eric Garner, a resident of New York City who was put in a chokehold and killed by uniformed officers for selling single cigarettes on the street corner. It was with this backdrop that Kaepernick decided to take his disapproval to primetime.
Now, one may wonder why we are so concerned about playing national anthems before professional sporting events, when the teams don’t represent a country, but moreover a city or region in the first place? Never mind the fact that I cannot fathom the idea of Aboriginal folks that reside in Washington, D.C. standing at attention at a Redskins game for an anthem that represents a country that was stolen from them. Nor can I imagine a resident of Cleveland with Aboriginal roots proudly standing at Progressive Field while the anthem is played before a Cleveland Indians game. The Olympics is probably the only time a national anthem makes sense, and even then, traditionally they are played after a competition for the winner of the event. To the victors go the spoils, accolades and anthems.
Kaepernick’s protest is not against the anthem, it is against America.
All that aside, Kaepernick’s protest is not against the anthem, it is against America, a country that has mercilessly condoned the use of racism and bigotry to fuel its policing and legislation, enabling officers to kill people of colour, armed or unarmed, for centuries without reprisal. There comes a time when even the quietest of public figures take a stand.
And in this case, that person is Mr. Colin Kaepernick — a young man given up for adoption by his Caucasian birth mother and who grew up without his African-American father. He’s now playing professional football at its highest level, mired in controversy surrounding his inherent right to protest. Kaepernick is not known for his socio-political stance, nor is he known for being overly outspoken about matters not pertaining to football. So, it came as somewhat of a surprise when during a pre-season game, he decided to sit, rather than stand during the playing of the national anthem. The reason he gave was direct: “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
The larger question that is being asked is not of injustice, racism and oppression. It is moreover a question of bringing patriotism or nationalistic virtues onto a professional playing field. A playing field that inhabits trained professionals, geared up, hyped up and prepared to battle opponents in a timed format with a declared winner at the expiration of the clock. Unfortunately, for many Black people, they are often considered the losers in the daily battle called life in the U.S.A.
It still begs the question of what the NFL as an entity is doing to combat the issues of racism and oppression that affect its players — largely young, Black men.
While many in the U.S. and throughout the world do not necessarily agree with Kaepernick’s protest, it’s apparent that his right to do so is applauded and encouraged by many others. In a recent interview with USA Today, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stated, “I support our players when they want to see change in society, and we don’t live in a perfect society. Players have a platform, and it’s his right to do that.” This was an encouraging statement coming from a commissioner that has found himself in unfavourable positions with his players as of late — but hardly a ringing endorsement. While the statement is supportive to a degree, it still begs the question of what the NFL as an entity is doing to combat the issues of racism and oppression that affect its players — largely young, Black men.
It is unclear when this protest will end, as the act itself has taken on a life of its own. After being invited to meet with U.S. war veteran Nate Boyer, Kaepernick shifted his seated protest to a kneeling one. His support has grown as teammate Eric Berry has joined him while others associated with the league have taken up the cause in their own way. Some kneel and some have decided to raise their fists à la Tommie Smith and John Carlos of the 1968 Summer Olympics. Over 40 years have passed since that Olympic protest in Mexico City, but unfortunately not much has changed. Many of the issues surrounding race relations and policing still exist to this day. People of colour in America, and North America to a larger degree, continue to struggle to fight against and rid themselves of social constructs built on racist ideologies.
Cornell William Brooks, the president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), compares Kaepernick to Rosa Parks. A lofty comparison indeed, however, it is a comparison that only fits if the effort placed into making change is actualized. It would be nice if Goodell and the NFL were to effectively use their platform to help change or thwart the natural progression of racial issues in the U.S. Perhaps they’re just happy to have singular individuals take up the cause themselves. In any case, awareness has been brought to an issue that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. We must congratulate and salute Kaepernick, who has little to gain personally, for putting everything at risk — his job, his endorsements and his reputation — all in an effort to further this cause. Kaepernick is a second string quarterback with a great deal at stake. Players in his position would tend to wallow in the shadows of obscurity until their number is called. One can only imagine what would happen if more athletes with a lot more at stake took the same stance, or knee.
This article is dedicated to the memory and legacy of my friend and rapper Kunle “King Reign” Thomas and Coach Kerreigh Ernst. May you both rest in eternal peace.