Kaepernick: When can protest become unpatriotic?

By Madeline Rutowski

Opinion Contributor

Football is known as one of America’s most beloved sports, a trusted Sunday soldier with the ability to unite cities and towns alike under one mascot, one team, one preferred player, or one tailgating parking lot. Football’s purpose is to produce camaraderie amongst fans and friendly competition amongst opponents; it was never intended to serve as a platform for social protest. Colin Kaepernick, however, chooses to believe otherwise. Kaepernick, the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand during the routine rendition of the the United States National Anthem during a preseason game on August 26. When questioned about his seemingly unpatriotic lack of participation, Kaepernick simply said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color….” The quarterback is, of course, alluding to the recent and disturbing influx of violence that has plagued black communities nationwide, including the issues of police brutality and the negative reception to “Black Lives Matter” protests. In refusing to stand up and participate in an anthem that unites a country, Kaepernick was peacefully protesting the United States’ response, or lack thereof, to serious, pressing issues involving the safety and livelihood of people of color. Some spectators, however, did not see Kaepernick’s actions as understandable or respectable; they instead tore him apart, declaring him unpatriotic and undeserving of his position.

Some fellow football players denounced Kaepernick’s actions, such as Justin Pugh of the New York Giants, who tweeted, “I will be standing during the national anthem tonight. Thank you to all (gender, race, religion) that put your lives on the line for that flag.” Matthew Hasselbeck of the Green Bay Packers also tweeted, “Easy way to make sure you’re not starting QB on opening day #Sept11.” Many took Kaepernick’s lack of participation as a slight to all those who fight in the Armed Forces for this country. People believe that in refusing to stand up, Kaepernick was being disrespectful to the people to whom the anthem is dedicated.

But many veterans, however, did not react to Kaepernick’s civil disobedience the way most of the civilians in America believed they would. There has been an outpouring of support from veterans and those presently serving in the Armed Forces for Kaepernick and for all other NFL players who have stood in solidarity with him. Recently the hashtag #VeteransForKaepernick has started trending on Twitter, allowing some very important voices to be heard. One notable tweet reads, “I serve for his right to protest… I don’t serve for Police Brutality… #VeteransForKaepernick.”

My opinion is this: people who serve in the military do so to explicitly defend everything this country stands for, and that includes a human being’s right to sit down during a performance of the National Anthem, so it confuses me when the opposition says that what Kaepernick and his sympathizers are doing is unpatriotic. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Would you consider Frederick Douglass to be unpatriotic? Would you consider Martin Luther King, Jr. to be unpatriotic? What about Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks? Hopefully all of these questions were met with a resounding “no.” The truth is that none of these trailblazers are regarded as political anarchists today, but during their respective time periods, they were regarded in the same way that Kaepernick is being regarded presently. Kaepernick was not being unpatriotic in choosing to express himself politically; rather, he was employing his First Amendment right to freedom of petition and symbolic expression, just as Douglass, King, Tubman, and Parks did. Wanting to better one’s country does not make one unpatriotic.

Kaepernick’s protest has gained so much inertia in the past weeks that even President Obama made a statement: “I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about… And if nothing else, what he’s done is he’s generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.” Obama also noted that Kaepernick was in no way violating any rules in his protest, stating that he was “exercising his constitutional right.”

In my opinion, I believe that what Kaepernick did was brave. It took a lot of courage to stand up, or rather sit down, for what he believes in. I do not think that what he was trying to accomplish had anything to do with the degradation of armed service members, nor was it a blazé attempt for more attention. Rather, it is an endeavor to show support to a group of people who are facing an unknowably difficult time at the moment.

Kaepernick’s actions have spread like wildfire across the National Football League. During a home opener on September 11th, many Miami Dolphins knelt on the sidelines, while their opponent, the Seattle Seahawks, joined arms in solidarity during the Star Spangled Banner. Much more controversially, a player from the Kansas City Chiefs and two New England Patriots performed the Black Power salute when they raised their gloved fists during America’s theme song. This harkens back to the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City when Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two black athletes, raised their fists in fraternity with the Black Power movement during their medal ceremony. But the support doesn’t stop there. The protest has transcended football in the form of Megan Rapinoe, a soccer player for the Chicago Red Stars, who similarly took a knee during the national anthem. The protest transcends age groups as well in the form of Mike Oppong, a Massachusetts high school student and football star, who also took a knee during the anthem and was promptly suspended for doing so.

Reactions seem to be split on whether or not Kaepernick was in the right when he took a stand by choosing to sit. Some people believe his actions were noble and much-needed, whereas others believe them to be petulant and unnecessary. No matter what the masses may think, Kaepernick made quite a wave in the news by successfully drawing national attention to an important issue, which by any definition is considered a win. Whether you like it or not, Kaepernick has succeeded in his peaceful protest.


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