Freedom Is Complicated

Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit out the Nation Anthem is more complex than it seems.

Long-time readers of El Hombre (both of you) know that he’s a fan of the film industry’s finest offerings. All-time classics like Citizen Kane, On the Waterfront, Casablanca and Rock ’n’ Roll High School occupy positions of great honor in his personal cinema Valhalla. Another of his favorites is The American President, in large part because of President Andrew Shepherd’s speech to the press corps near the end of the movie.

In the oration, which comes as a response to the dastardly character attacks made by White House wanna-be Bob Rumson, Shepherd talks about how being an American is “advanced citizenship” and how those who want free speech must “acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”

It’s a good point, and it has new meaning thanks to the imbroglio that has surrounded San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision last week to sit during the “Star-Spangled Banner” before his team’s pre-season home game against Green Bay. Rather than stand at attention with his teammates, as is the custom for the overwhelming majority of players throughout the league, Kaepernick retreated to the bench to protest police killings of blacks throughout the country and what he considers to be a growing injustice against people of color.

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Sunday, at his locker in the Niners’ practice facility, Kaepernick stated that he will remain on the bench for the National Anthem for the rest of the season. “I’ll continue to sit. … I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed,” he said. “To me, this is something that has to change, and when there’s significant change—and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way it’s supposed to—I’ll stand.”

As one might imagine, Kaepernick’s decision sparked a firestorm. Some people excoriated him in the media. A few burned his jersey. Players came down on both sides. Many turned his action into a referendum on his lack of support for the military, which doesn’t seem congruent to his protest of what he believes to be inequitable treatment of the nation’s people of color.

Whatever the case, Kaepernick is completely within his rights as an American to do what he did. If he wants to keep sitting during the anthem this season—provided he’s on an NFL roster this year, and his pre-season performance puts that in jeopardy—it’s fine, too. At a time when intelligent discourse is at premium in this country, and athletes too rarely stand up meaningfully for what matters to them (besides a paycheck), Kaepernick’s actions are insulting to some and offensive to many. But what folks in this country seem to forget is that their own opinions aren’t always so attractive to others, either.

Before he took to the bench Friday night, Kaepernick spoke on the sidelines with Cal-Berkeley sociologist and civil rights advocate Harry Edwards, one of the nation’s strongest and most respected voices on issues of race. It’s clear Kaepernick’s actions were not frivolous, just as the Black Power salutes by John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics were born of considerable thought. (Edwards encouraged all black athletes to boycott the Mexico City Games.)

If Kaepernick’s actions contribute to positive discussions on the serious problems experienced by Americans of color, then he will have made a difference. However, if those who disagree with him choose to meet his decision with animus, then perhaps they need a little more help from President Shepherd: “You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.”

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This is indeed advanced stuff, folks. We need to elevate the discussion and understand that everyone has the right to his or her opinion—and, more importantly, to real freedom.

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Since the Eagles don’t play Dallas until Oct. 30 and then again on Jan. 1, it’s highly possible Cowboys’ QB Tony Romo and his broken back will be available for both games, unless the fragile passer gets hurt again. Still, in a division filled with question marks, it’s good news for the Birds that Dallas will be compromised—at least in the short run. We should never hope for injury, but sometimes the consequences of players’ getting hurt can be beneficial to the home team.

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