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Why Colin Kaepernick's Protest Matters

At the center of a deeply stupid media firestorm is a simple and fairly powerful act.

by Harry Cheadle
Sep 2 2016, 8:01pm

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick said. "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 some settings—a college campus, a Black Lives Matter protest, the op-ed section of any left-leaning publication—these sorts of sentiments would be utterly banal. There are bodies in the streets; cops really do go on leave after even the most brutal killings of citizens. But thanks to Kaepernick's position inside the NFL—which is to say, at a nexus of rah-rah patriotism, quasi-military tradition, and the most popular sport in America—this became the biggest story of the week, obsessively covered by the media and hot-take merchants.

To understand why everyone cares so much, we need to go back to the beginning. In 1814, Francis Scott Key put some new lyrics over an old British tune to create the "Star-Spangled Banner," a song that fucking sucks. It's hard to sing, it commemorates a relatively obscure war no one cares about anymore, and in its hardly-ever-sung third verse (oh yeah, there are other verses), it celebrates the killing of slaves fighting for the British. It's such a terrible song that for years, many people, including at least one senator, have been trying to replace it as the national anthem, probably with "America the Beautiful," a much better choice.

But even before the "Star-Spangled Banner" was declared the national anthem in 1931, it was a staple of sporting events. According to a history of the song from NBC News, it got played before and several times throughout the first professional baseball game ever played in Brooklyn, back in 1862. What really linked the song to sports, however, was a 1918 game between the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs where the band played the "Star-Spangled Banner" during the seventh-inning stretch. Red Sox third baseman Fred Thomas, an active-duty member of the Navy at the time, stood up straight and saluted from his spot on the field. The other players put their hands on their hearts, and the crowd sang along, all apparently spontaneously. (In an excellent account of this event in ESPN the Magazine, this display is chalked up to the high emotions engendered by World War I and a recent bombing in Chicago committed by a left-wing group.) The display of patriotism drew national headlines, the song began to get played at ballparks, and the rest is history.

According to Flag Code, during the national anthem, you're supposed to stand up and face the flag. Members of the military in uniform salute, men in civilian dress take off their hats, everyone not in uniform puts their right hand in the vicinity of their heart, and you stay like that until Roseanne Barr is done singing.

But Flag Code isn't law, of course, and countless people do their own thing during the "Star-Spangled Banner." Jehovah's Witnesses, for instance, reject all forms of nationalism and don't stand up for any national anthem or salute any flag. Some Quakers disapprove of the militaristic lyrics about "bombs bursting in air," especially given the US's long history of warfare. Then there's John Carlos and Tommie Smith, who after medaling in the 200-meter dash in the 1968 Olympics, raised their hands in the black power salute on the podium while the "Star-Spangled Banner" played.

Smith and Carlos were widely denounced at the time, with even more fury than is being directed at Kaepernick. But there's been a heated backlash to the quarterback's sitting as well, with Donald Trump opining that "maybe he should find another country that works better for him." Part of this anger is because a lot of people, like Trump, are hostile to the Black Lives Matter movement and the idea that systemic racism is leading to what amounts to the state-endorsed killing of people of color. But it's also probably because the NFL is conservative in every sense of the word.

The players, coaches, staff, and executives of the NFL have tended to donate more heavily to Republicans than they do Democrats. but the sport's rightward leanings are fairly clear in how the game is presented both by the league and its broadcasters. Most obviously, there's the continuous over-the-top displays of patriotism and militarism—displays that, from 2011 to 2014, the Department of Defense paid teams $5.4 million to put on. On Thursday, when Kaepernick again refused to stand for the anthem (and was joined in protest by his teammate Eric Reid) the San Diego Chargers were celebrating a military-appreciation night. For years, Monday Night Football led off with a pop-country song from Hank Williams Jr., an extremely conservative performer who only lost the gig in 2011 when ESPN fired him for comparing Obama to Hitler. ESPN also hired Rush Limbaugh as an NFL commentator at one point (a fairly bad decision), and it's hard to imagine the Worldwide Leader bringing on a left-wing talk show host in the same capacity.

Meanwhile, the NFL clamps down strictly on its players' ability to express themselves, with notoriously strict uniform rules and fines for touchdown celebrations deemed too excessive. When a police union official criticized Kaepernick for recently wearing socks that depicted cops as pigs, he asked why that was allowed when the league stopped the Dallas Cowboys from honoring police officers killed in the July sniping attack—and he had a point.

It's been said before, but it can't get said enough: The whole point of America, as an idea, is that everyone has the freedom of thought and speech. Sometimes this results in a lot of people saying and thinking angry and stupid things, but to be cynical about the media firestorm around Kaepernick is to ignore the simple power at the core of all this. A man was upset at what he saw his country do, he made a gesture to indicate this, and he told people who asked what was behind the gesture. Some people got upset, but others listened, and have now joined him. Isn't that supposed to be what a protest is all about?

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.