Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, ignited a fierce debate over patriotism, racial injustice, and protest in professional sports by refusing to stand for the national anthem.
Kaepernick explained his motives. "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."
In later games, Kaepernick chose to kneel not sit, "because there are issues that still need to be addressed and it was also a way to show more respect to the men and women who fight for this country."
Why is it important?
Kaepernick's protest sits at the epicenter of debate about what it means to be patriotic. In particular, what makes a protest respectful or disrespectful to the American military, leaders, and other citizens? What obligation, if any, do people in the public eye have to take action against injustices they see in their country? What boundaries, if any, does fame put on political protest?
Is Colin Kaepernick's protest patriotic?
Kaepernick has the right to sit during our national anthem. Men and women fight and die to protect that right. But in doing so, he is twisting one important way Americans show respect for these same men and women—and that is not patriotism. Even if you agree with Kaepernick's points about racial injustice, you can find his means of protest to be wildly disrespectful.
It doesn't matter if Kaepernick thinks he is respecting the troops. He isn't. The national anthem was irrevocably tied to sporting events during World War I; it was played to honor our troops then, and it is played to honor our troops now. To twist this pure demonstration of solidarity with the men and women who protect our country into a protest is anything but patriotic. Find another way to make a point.
Just listen to Alejandro Villanueva, Pittsburg Steelers left tackle and former Army Ranger, who agrees with Kaepernick's point but finds his protest misplaced. "I will be the first one to hold hands with Colin Kaepernick and do something about the way minorities are being treated in the United States, the injustice that is happening with police brutality, the justice system, inequalities in pay... [But] you can't do it by looking away from the people that are trying to protect our freedom and our country."
Kaepernick is standing up for America, not against it. His protest is a principled effort to call attention to racial injustices and by addressing them better his country, making him far more patriotic than those who deliberately ignore the same injustices.
The claim that Kaepernick's protest is disrespectful to troops is a specious argument used to dismiss his important point about racial injustice. His freedom speech is what the troops are fighting for. In fact, a group of veterans recently published an open letter saying exactly that—and more: "Far from disrespecting our troops, there is no finer form of appreciation for our sacrifice than for Americans to enthusiastically exercise their freedom of speech."
This is a nonviolent example of someone exercising their freedom of speech that stimulated an elevated national dialogue about racial injustice. What could be more American?
Kaepernick's protest falls among many others, from Muhammad Ali refusing to participate in the draft to NBA players wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. These efforts to call attention to national problems are much greater acts of patriotism than standing for the anthem can ever be.