There is never a dull week in the National Football League—even during the offseason—and there has been no shortage of controversy surrounding the league and its players this year. Whether it be for the league’s handling of players who have assaulted women, taken banned substances or even partaken in the now infamous “Deflategate,” it seems there is no way to escape the media frenzy that surrounds the league that owns a day of the week. Few NFL players, however, have generated as much buzz and outrage this year as San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers on Aug. 26, news broke that Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem, and hadn’t stood in previous games as well.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said in a post-game interview. Kaepernick continued on to reference the recent police shootings of unarmed black men and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” Kaepernick said. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
There has been plenty of support for Kaepernick since. Many athletes in the NFL have come to his defense, including Buffalo Bills’ wide receiver Sammy Watkins. “I think there needs to be more guys like him,” Watkins said.
Other athletes have been following Kaepernick’s footsteps when it comes to sitting for the anthem, the most recent being United States women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Even President Obama defended the quarterback for exercising his constitutional rights and trying to bring awareness to a serious issue.
Many others do not feel the same, though, and view his protest as a lack of respect for the United States and the people who paid the ultimate sacrifice for it. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees voiced his opinion on Twitter last week, tweeting, “I agree with his protest, I DON’T agree [with] his METHOD.” Social media was also quick to criticize Kaepernick’s protest, with many people claiming the quarterback is ungrateful, and even mocking his example of “oppression” with his 6 year $114 million contact.
Many fans of the 49ers have voiced their opinions as well, with some even lighting his jersey on fire while the national anthem played in the background. Many have also called for him to be cut from the team.
For the 26-year-old quarterback, the past two years have been difficult in terms of his on-the-field performance. Kaepernick went from being one of the most dominant quarterbacks in the league and the future face of the 49ers franchise to a backup to fellow quarterback Blaine Gabbert. With the cap space problem he poses, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him looking for a new job come next season. Nevertheless, the 49ers organization knows that he is exercising his First Amendment right, and—whether or not the front office agrees with it—cannot punish him for doing so.
Kaepernick clarified his statement last week after starting in the last preseason game before the regular season, calling his protest a “misunderstanding.”
“The media painted this as ‘I’m anti-American, anti men and women of the military’ and that’s not the case at all,” he said. “I realize that men and women of the military go out and sacrifice their lives and put themselves in harm’s way for my freedom of speech and my freedoms in this country and my freedom to take a seat or take a knee, so I have the upmost respect for them.”
Now, he plans on kneeling rather than sitting during the national anthem, and also plans to donate $1 million to community organizations and to visit the San Francisco Police Academy to better understand the mission statement and sacrifices of police officers. All of this is part of his effort to bring communities and police together so that trust can be rebuilt between them.
So, is Kaepernick’s way of protest disrespectful to his country? Could he have protested differently to raise awareness for an issue that he holds dear to his heart? Does it draw unnecessary attention to himself instead of that issue? In the eyes of many, yes. But regardless of the issue, he has the right to speak out about this type of problem, a right that thousands of Americans fought and died for to protect. And while he may not be able to find pride in police forces in this country, at least he can find pride in that.