Standard Deviations: What will it take for US to earn Kaepernick’s respect?
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick warms up before the team's NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, kneels during the national anthem before the team's NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, kneels during the national anthem before the team's NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
A football player refuses to stand for the national anthem, and suddenly he’s the fourth-most-hated person in America.
How does that happen?
One can at least understand why Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton make the list. But Colin Kaepernick? To borrow from the “Sesame Street” song: “One of these things is not like the others; One of these things just doesn’t belong.”
The San Francisco 49ers quarterback has taken to sitting or kneeling for “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the start of NFL games, insisting he refuses “to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” The response to Kaepernick’s protest has been fairly predictable. Loud, sustained booing. Insults. Even calls for him to be dropped from the team.
Let me begin by saying I support Kaepernick’s right to protest, every bit as much as I support those who protest his protest. (As well as you who would protest those who protest his protest.)
But a bit of perspective, if I may.
If I’m reading his motives correctly, Kaepernick is upset over what he believes is a serious, systemic problem involving the treatment of an entire race of people, and this is the way he’s chosen to call attention to the issue. He’s not trying to overthrow the government. He’s not advocating violence against police officers. He’s not even shouting “Black lives matter!” or other protest slogans during the national anthem.
Rather, Kaepernick is merely sitting or kneeling quietly, waiting for the rest of us to complete our patriotic ritual. Granted, his purpose for doing so is to call attention to the issue, but it’s not like he’s actively disrupting those for whom the flag and anthem are a personal experience.
So, what’s the problem?
It’s like when our kids were young and would tattle on one of their siblings for opening their eyes during a family prayer. “Really? And how did you know they opened their eyes?” When the national anthem is playing, our focus should be on the flag, not on some athlete taking a knee on the sidelines.
I have less of an issue with the way Mr. Kaepernick has chosen to express his personal feelings than with the explanation he gives for doing it. Saying you won’t show pride in a flag for a country that is oppressive is an awfully broad brush with which to paint an emotional, complex issue. Calling an entire country racist is about as helpful as implying an entire race of people hate law and order.
What may have been lost in the translation here is that when you attack a country, it sometimes feels as if you’re attacking anyone who calls that country home. When Kaepernick says our country oppresses people, it’s hard not to think what he’s really saying is that you and I, as part of that country, are oppressive. And whether it’s true or not, that’s a pretty hard thing for any of us to hear.
Maybe if Kaepernick had said he refuses to show pride in a flag for a government that oppresses — rather than a country — his criticism would have been more palatable. Maybe. But as it is, saying an entire country is oppressive is offensive. I’m the country. You’re the country. Colin Kaepernick is the country.
Some critics have insisted the the 49ers should somehow “make” Kaepernick show respect by giving him an ultimatum: Either stand and honor the flag and national anthem, or be fired.
I guess that makes sense. At least, as much sense as those who called for Don Imus’ firing over his offensive “nappy-headed hos” comment. Well, except in his case, the cry wasn’t “change your behavior or be fired.” It was simply, “be fired.”
Most of us love this country. We believe in it. But we also know it is deeply flawed. And those are the parts, I like to imagine, that Kaepernick is protesting. The problem is, how do we address such serious issues without triggering defensiveness?
Well, I know one way you don’t do it. You don’t resort to calling an entire country oppressive.
Not all shootings of black people by white cops is racism, just like not all calls for investigations into police shootings is cop-hating. Part of our problem in addressing race in the United States is that we keep using nukes on an issue better suited to precise, surgical strikes on specific targets.
There’s one thing I can’t help but wonder in all of this: At what point will Kaepernick again begin standing for the national anthem? What will it take for him to finally feel his country is no longer oppressive? Given our long, sad history with race in this country, it’s difficult to believe we’ll ever see him standing at attention for the national anthem — not in his lifetime, anyway. And certainly not in his football career.
And that’s the real question here:
What’s it going to take for this this flawed, racist, oppressive country to finally be worthy of Colin Kaepernick’s respect?
Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEMarkSaal.