People Mostly Agree About Colin Kaepernick, So What Are We Yelling About?

SANTA CLARA, CA - SEPTEMBER 14:  Quarterback Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers looks on during the second quarter of their game against the Chicago Bears at Levi's Stadium on September 14, 2014 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

People Mostly Agree About Colin Kaepernick, So What Are We Yelling About?


People Mostly Agree About Colin Kaepernick, So What Are We Yelling About?

It doesn’t seem this way, but most people are in agreement on most aspects of Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest. Everyone agrees it is his right to express himself in this way, and everyone agrees protecting that right is essential to a liberal and free society. Everyone agrees it is likewise within the rights of others to criticize that expression, and to make fun of his haircut.

Further, everyone agrees that Kaepernick’s protest is a symbolic gesture, not a practical suggestion; he is offering no prescription for the ills he identifies. Everyone agrees the American flag is crammed full of meaning (interpretations will vary).  And everyone agrees Colin Kaepernick is a lousy quarterback.

Yet everyone is arguing about this, and it’s going nowhere.

It’s going nowhere because most of the arguments are centered around superficial details. The size of Kaepernick’s salary, his adoption by white parents, how the troops must feel, and the lyrical content of the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner are all interesting tangential topics, but they’re irrelevant to Kaepernick’s thesis – American society oppresses black people in 2016.

That, if you look discerningly, is what you’ll find people are actually in disagreement about. Even Kaepernick would agree what he did was disrespectful — that was the point. Imagine what a relief it would be if all of American society was on the same page about where things stood, race wise. That looks pretty Utopian from here, but most Americans want that, even if they disagree on how to achieve it.

The process of figuring that out is impeded by pandering charlatans like Brian T. Smith, sports columnist at my local newspaper, the Houston Chronicle. For Sunday’s paper, Smith wrote a baldly insincere, patronizing, uncurious and antijournalistic column that read like a transcription of a room full of 8th graders yelling at the TV.

It contains thoughts like this …

I guess no one bothered to tell the guy who went 2-for-6 for 14 yards that the country he’s protesting has had an African-American as its publicly elected president the last eight years.

This …

Speaking of: Why do we even care what a backup QB on a team that won five games last season has to say?

This …

Heck, yeah.

This …

America allows Kaepernick to make a base salary of $11.9 million by sitting on the bench and failing to deliver on his athletic promise.

And this …

The safety our flag provides also gives Kaepernick the right to defy it.

Nevermind that the flag, fabric as it is, doesn’t provide much protection from anything stronger than wind, this is not a serious column. It’s not a sincere attempt to add anything to a conversation. It’s not even an attempt to persuade. Smith gathered himself a bunch of red herrings, doused ‘em with gasoline, lit ‘em on fire and started flinging them into the air.

My own thoughts, in the interest of full disclosure:

  • I don’t like what Kaepernick did
  • It was disrespectful, but so was the Boston Tea Party
  • I’m not comparing this to the Boston Tea Party, calm down
  • I think it’s weird and a little creepy that pretty much the only time you ever hear the national anthem played is before sporting events
  • Look around the stadium during the anthem at your next NFL game and you’ll notice plenty of people ignoring the anthem for entirely non-political reasons
  • Wearing a Fidel Castro shirt while speaking out against oppression makes it seem like you misunderstand oppression, Fidel Castro, or both
  • Colin Kaepernick is not going to be a civil rights leader

I’ve seen some comparisons between Kaepernick and Muhammad Ali, and in the sense they are making the same broad point, it’s a useful comparison. But Ali was the best boxer of all time, the most famous athlete of his era, and one of the most engaging speakers in American history. Colin Kaepernick is a mumblecore backup quarterback who lacks the influence, charisma and rhetorical sophistication to advance the conversation much further.

Identity politics invariably eats its own tail. In this case, that tail is Colin Kaepernick, whose critics point to his wealth, his profession, his racial and family identity and his diminished fame as reasons he should just keep his mouth shut. But those things are irrelevant to the questions at hand: (a) When, if ever, is it appropriate to disrespect the flag, and (b) are black people oppressed in America?

I suspect the silent majority of Americans are more in agreement on these questions than it looks like on Twitter or sounds like on TV. But that’s the discussion. That’s the argument. Anyone not interested in having it can feel free to sit this one out. Because that’s OK too.

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