It was just a short time ago that we lost Muhammad Ali. No one could dispute his greatness in the ring; his political activism remained more controversial for much of his life. But when he died, there was widespread praise for his courage in refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, a stand for which he was vilified at the time, and which cost him three years of boxing when he was at what should have been the peak of his career.
Unexpectedly, we got a reminder this weekend of how hard it is to make that kind of stand when one is actually in the moment. At a preseason NFL game this Friday night, quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers refused to stand for the Star Spangled Banner. (Apparently, he'd done this at the earlier exhibition games and no one noticed.)
Later, Kaepernick -- biracial, adopted and raised by a white family -- told NFL.com: "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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."
Already, the fear and loathing -- including a jersey burning or two -- is in full flower. Today, I read a strong defense of the one-time Super Bowl QB from one of the best sportswriters around, Will Leitch. Here's some of Leitch's case for Kaepernick:
Kaepernick got everyone's attention focused on the issues he cares about not by doing something modest that many people will agree with him on, but by doing something that invites loud disagreement. He has been talking on his Twitter feed about African-American oppression for months, and few have even noticed. (He has also heavily criticized Hillary Clinton on his Twitter feed, by the way.) They have noticed now. That was the point of this. You can disagree on the anthem stance, but Kaepernick has forced his issues into the public conversation. That's a lot to put on one's back. He has legitimately risked something; he has legitimately risked everything. That is something we have not seen in a long time.
And it's what happens next that matters. Over the next week, every major black athlete in this country is going to be asked what they think of Kaepernick's protests. (Fewer white people will be asked, though one suspects it will not slow the flow of opinions. It didn't stop mine!) Cam Newton will be asked. Russell Wilson will be asked. Adrian Peterson will be asked. Black coaches will be asked. Everyone's going to have to say something. Even saying nothing will be saying something.
That's what activism is. It is taking on risk to stand for what you believe in. There will be many players who will not appreciate the position Kaepernick put them in, even if they agree with him. Because he forced them off the sidelines. You can't dance between the raindrops forever. Howard Zinn's famous line is that you cannot be neutral on a moving train. The train has always been moving. Now no one can pretend otherwise. Even if they'd like to. What happens next is everything.
Exactly. For me, I stand for the National Anthem those rare times anymore that I get to a sporting event, and I don't plan on stopping. Why? I think it does rightly honor the Average Joes and Janes who risked everything fighting for the country -- some of whom are at the game -- and also because the Anthem speaks to what America aspires to be, no matter how imperfectly.
One of those things the United States aspires to be -- and here we've been really imperfect -- is a nation that respects and even honors the right of citizens to dissent. In other words, when you stand for the National Anthem, you are actually standing for the right of Colin Kaepernick to sit down, and to call attention to the greivances he wants the government to address. It's a remarkably brave thing for Kaepernick to do, and I very much admire his courage.
Not posthumously. In real time.