Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem on Sunday. He did so because of his belief the United States “oppresses black people and people of color.” Not surprisingly, this was the lead story on Monday.
Sports coverage has become far more political. Kaepernick’s action hit square on the nerve of America’s present political and racial divide. Is America the glimmering land of freedom, opportunity, and enlightenment? Is that project indelibly stained by America’s explicit, implicit, and often violent subjugation of black Americans? Walt Whitman was large, contradicted himself, and contained multitudes. Social-media-fueled political discourse leaves little room for complexity and nuance.
Kaepernick performed this action as perhaps the most reviled of athletes, the underperforming, overpaid, and black NFL quarterback. He came out donned for ideological battle in a Malcolm X hat and a Fidel Castro t-shirt. At a surface level, this was a perfect storm of inflammation. It was more interesting than exhibition football.
Media coverage, not surprisingly, laser focused on it. At this site, all Kaepernick updates and offshoots were covered. Any salient Kaepernick angle received the green light. Nationally, every member of the football fraternity with press availability was questioned about it.
Football coaches were asked to pee between two electrified rails. They could espouse support for Kaepernick and engulf whatever football operation they are operating into distractions. They could reject Kaepernick, take a stand many would mark as tantamount to supporting racism and bring about a similar distraction.
The only acceptable, between the rails response, short of no commenting a la Bill Belichick, was the bland one: I support his right to protest but I did not agree with the protest. Most coaches gave some variation of that response and went on evading questions about plans and depth charts.
Jim Harbaugh dribbled off to the right with poor wording. Whatever his true thoughts, it’s highly doubtful the guy who won’t tell the media who is starting at left tackle before the season found it the opportune time to make a bold political stand. His corrective tweet came within minutes.
Jay Gruden, albeit obliquely, pees where he wants. How one hews to political correctness is probably redundant when you coach a team named the “Washington Redskins.”
It’s clear what media interest this served: clicks, viewers, engagement, whatever. What’s unclear is what public interest was served.
We had the NFL policy on players standing or not standing for the national anthem. Football coaches are hardly qualified experts on racial relations, politics, protests, and the symbology of the American flag. Their opinions on such matters are hardly a material matter of public concern.
It’s possible this line of questioning could have solicited genuine, thoughtful opinion. But, the primary exercise, clear to both parties, was placing an unwieldy obstacle in front of coaches to trip over and hoping they would.
Comments obtained are news, after the fact. However, it’s news that is being manufactured more than covered. Some artifice is required, when the job is covering a five-month sport year round. But, if sports is destined to be a social justice battleground, it’s time to rethink a reporting methodology best suited to entertainment and ephemera.