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The NFL as a political platform: Colin Kaepernick’s protest

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If you haven’t noticed, the NFL stadium has become the latest front line in political protests. Should it be?

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals
Will Kaepernick get sacked by fans?
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It’s not uncommon for professional athletes to use their celebrity status to their advantage. Some use it to land a few extra bucks in advertising, pitching cars for a local seller, or reaching a national audience discount double checking insurance or proclaiming a better pizza with better ingredients. Other athletes have used their recognition to champion a particular cause. It gives them the platform to reach an audience that would otherwise be unattainable.

To that end, Colin Kaepernick is not the first NFL player to use his status as a recognizable football player, albeit as a backup, to make a statement. Nor is Kaepernick the first athlete to use the United States’ national anthem, the “Star Spangled Banner” as his opportunity to make his protest.

In the 1968 Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos finished first and third in the 200 meter race, winning gold and bronze, respectively. During the playing of the national anthem during their medal ceremony, both players displayed the “Black Power” salute to protest what they felt was the poor treatment of minorities in the United States.

NUGGETS V BULLS

In 1996, NBA basketball player Chris Wayne Jackson, who renamed himself Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf after converting to Islam, refused to stand for the National Anthem when it was played before NBA games. His protest was seeing the U.S. flag as a symbol of oppression by a tyrannical country. As he explained, “It’s clear in the Quran, Islam is the only way.” The league ultimately came to a compromise where he would stand during the anthem, but could pray during that time.

In 2004 Carlos Delgado sat in the dugout during the playing of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning of baseball games during the 2004 season. His protest was against the U.S. military fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as his opposition to the US Navy having a presence on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

Enter Colin Kaepernick, the most recent professional athlete to use a nationalistic song played as part of a sporting event to make a protest against an aspect of the United States (though many others have followed since he began doing this in the preseason). Ever since being drafted back-to-back in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft, Kaepernick and Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton have been loosely associated with speculation of what might have been, had the Bengals selected Kaepernick instead of Dalton.

On the field the two quarterbacks’ careers have taken distinctively different paths. After a flash in the pan start to his career, including a Super Bowl appearance, Kaepernick has flamed out, being replaced by draft bust Blaine Gabbert as the 49ers starting quarterback, and teetering on the verge of being out of the league. Meanwhile, Dalton has steadily improved on the field, even garnering MVP consideration last year before an injury derailed his season. Off-the-field, the two quarterbacks have now become starkly different too.

NFL: Preseason-San Francisco 49ers at San Diego Chargers Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

What is Kaepernick doing:

Kaepernick is not standing with the rest of the players or fans in the stadium during the presentation of the U.S. flag and the playing of the National Anthem. Instead of standing, he has been sitting, or most recently, kneeling, during the tribute to the U.S.

Why is Kaepernick refusing to stand for the anthem?

In an interview with NFL Media’s Steve Wyche, Kaepernick explained, "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."

Is Kaepernick right?

Is Kaepernick right that the United States oppresses black people, and that people (police officers) are getting paid to get away with murder? Maybe. Maybe not. Ultimately Cincy Jungle is a place to discuss football related topics, and not politics. Therefore, I will not delve into his message, but instead will look at his method, since it is happening on the football field, before a football game.

Is Kaepernick’s protest legal?

From the perspective of employee-employer relations, his protest seems legitimate. Even though Kaepernick is participating in an employer activity (NFL game) at an employer facility (NFL stadium), there does not seem to be any rule in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the NFL and the player’s union requiring that a player stand during the playing of the National Anthem. Therefore, the NFL does not seem to have a legal ground to require him to end his protest.

In America’s history as a democratic republic, acts of protest such as assembling in public, marching in the street, freely speaking in the public square, and boycotting have been an integral thread in the fabric of our society.

Speaking from China, where he is attending a Group of 20 summit, President Obama seems to support Kaepernick’s form of protest (sitting for the presentation of the flag and National Anthem) suggesting that it is, “the way democracy works”. Obama also pointed out that the protest has “generated more conversation about issues that have to be talked about”, and offered his support by stating, “I’d rather have young people who are engaged in the argument”.

Annual March For Life Protests 1973 Roe v. Wade Ruling In Washington
Public protest is nothing new in the United States
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

What makes Kaepernick’s protest stand out?

There are two factors which make Kaepernick’s protest stand out from your typical twitter rant, your one percent crowd squatting outside of Wall St, or people collecting at the National Mall en masse. The first factor is that by rejecting the flag and anthem, which are symbols of the nation, his protest is viewed by some as going beyond a protest of a particular aspect of the country (like protesting taxes or abortion), but is seen as a protest against the entire country itself. The broad protest against the symbols of the very nation which provides him the right to make this protest has rubbed some the wrong way, and drawn a strong backlash.

The other factor of his protest that stands out is that his protest is not on the proverbial town square or public forum. Rather it is being made at a private sporting event where people have paid money to watch a sporting event, and not to watch his political activism. When most people pay to go watch a ballgame, go out to dinner, or ride an airplane, they do not expect the players, waiters, or flight attendants to use the opportunity to make political statements to their captive audience. While they all have the right to make such a protest, it has turned some off to the protest, because of the venue where it has been carried out.

Opening a floodgate?

By the end of the NFL preseason, at least three other NFL players joined in Kaepernick’s protest by sitting during the national anthem. Teammate Eric Reid, and Seahawks’ cornerback Jeremy Lane both sat during the playing of the song during their most recent games. And in the 2016 regular season opener, Brandon Marshall of the Broncos who was teammates with Kaepernick in college at Nevada also knelt down during the National Anthem. It’s likely that more NFL players may join in the protest before the season has ended, but this is not the floodgate which I am referring to.

As we saw in the cases of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Carlos Delgado, those players sat during patriotic songs for different reasons than why Kaepernick is now sitting. If Kaepernick’s sitting starts to get traction, there really is no reason not to expect that other players would begin to sit, or show other forms of protest, for other causes that are important to them. It has happened before, and very well could happen again.

Cultural change often happens one person at a time. When the first bikini was worn in public it was seen as scandalous, but over time it became quite a common sight at most beaches. When the first white collar employee was able to get away without wearing a tie at work, it wasn’t long before the whole office had removed their ties. Similarly, it wouldn’t be out of the question for other players to see what Kaepernick is doing, and start sitting for other reasons of protest.

Perhaps you would have the quarterback sitting because he is pro-life and is protesting the millions of unborn babies killed by abortion. And perhaps the punter would be sitting because he opposes Gitmo, and refuses to stand until it is closed. And perhaps one of the cornerbacks would sit because he feels the country is not doing enough for the citizens, and will not stand until the country implements a system of socialism. The offensive guard who is a Biblical literalist may sit in protest of Darwinism being forced on society, and the strong side linebacker may sit to protest the large central banks who run the economy through the Federal Reserve. And the free safety may sit because he feels the country is violating the Constitution by limiting gun rights. Ultimately, in theory, you could have a whole stadium full of people sitting during the presentation of the flag and singing of the National Anthem.

That may sound a bit far-fetched, but illustrates the protest taken to its extreme. And ultimately if one accepts Kaepernick’s right to protest in such a manner, they would have to accept the right for others who chose to protest different causes in a same manner.

What happens next?

The protest is unlikely to affect Kaepernick’s career. His career trajectory is already on a downward descent, and a protest isn’t really going to accelerate that - he did make the 49ers roster. As history has shown, teams are willing to tolerate quite a lot if you can play. Both Tim Tebow and Michael Sam brought a media circus with them (for wildly different reasons) but that didn’t stop teams from giving them a shot, or two, or three. Just looking in the AFC North at recent players, both Le’Veon Bell and Josh Gordon have faced multiple suspensions for substance abuse, but continue to stay employed because they are able to perform on the field.

In the case of Delgado, after the initial backlash, he continued to play and even collect MVP votes over his final five seasons in the majors. With Abdul-Rauf, he was pretty much out of the league within a few seasons of his protest. While he seemed to blame the end of his career on his protest, it’s hard to dismiss his plummeting production over his final couple of seasons.

Coverage of Kaepernick’s protest will likely take a back seat in the sports media this weekend because there will be actual football games to cover. But because it has been front and center, that brings us to the question of the place of using the NFL game as the site of public protest. Is it acceptable to use the NFL stadium as a place of public protest? Should fans support his right to make a protest - does it matter what the topic of his protest is? Should fans join in with his protest?

Check out the video above or audio below of our discussion on the Kaepernick protest from this week’s episode of The Orange & Black Insider.