Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the playing of the US national anthem before an exhibition NFL football game has become something of a lightning rod for opinions from all corners of North America. In terms of protests from athletes, it ranks with the "Black Glove" salute from two American athletes during the Mexico Olympics of 1968, and Muhammad Ali's willingness to go to jail for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. Athletes have used their position of prominence to advance causes they believe in for years, and Kaepernick is following the tradition. And, like the former athletes, he has been the subject of intense criticism and even threatening backlash. He was, of course, completely aware that he would receive the reaction and, therefore, willing to endure it.
For me, the most interesting aspect of the criticism is the linking of the anthem and flag with the US military. Yes, it's true that soldiers in many wars have fought and died under the flag. But Kaepernick's actions did not specifically identify the US military as the target of his protest. He identified the nation as his target. For people to become so visceral in their condemnation claiming that he showed disrespect for the military is troubling because it shows that, in many corners of the US, the military IS the country. The flag, they seem to suggest, is the embodiment of the US military. And the anthem is a clarion call to war and bloodshed. (Indeed, the lyrics are warlike and praises the war of 1812.) For them, Kaepernick was giving the military the middle finger.
Those who criticise Kaepernick on these grounds have some questions to answer. Are they willing to admit that the US is a nation solely devoted to the glorification, establishment and maintenance of its military? Is the US simply a more modern version of ancient Sparta? Or a flashier version of today's North Korea? And are they saying to the whole world that they, Kaepernick's critics, are ready to cast aside all of the humane, creative and inspiring things that their nation has provided to the world in its past? And are they saying that any sign of protest or criticism is a sign of disloyalty to the military, but not the other things that the US embodies? There are no easy answer to these questions, just as there is no easy solution to the issue of police violence to African Americans, and other minorities also.
Few of us would do what Kaepernick did. The certainty of criticism and backlash would convince most of us to do the expected and stand for the anthem, and keep the strong feelings on the violence against African Americans inside, or reserve our feelings for conversations with family and friends. And most of us have genuine respect for the rituals of national anthems: we feel a true link to the things we hold dear about our country.
But what's truly important are these three things: First, Kaepernick's actions are, at least, to be admired for the courage and principles behind them. Second, the linkage of the protest to the military as the sole vestige of what the country represents is troubling. And third, the conversation surrounding the issue of police violence against African Americans, which is the core of Kaepernick's actions, is long overdue and, perhaps in no small way because of Kaepernick, actually happening.
We can dislike Kaepernick's tactics, but we must agree with his intentions.