“Land of the Free”: Provocation or Conversation?

On August 26th of last year, Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback of the San Francisco 49’ers, did not stand as is the custom for the playing of the national anthem before a football game. Kaepernick’s act of protest was met with backlash, as it was argued that his actions were inappropriate and unpatriotic. In an interview afterwards about racism and police brutality, Kaepernick said, “I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. When… I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.” The 49’ers released a statement afterwards saying, “The national anthem is… an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles… we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.” The National Football League further clarified, “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the National Anthem.”

Kaepernick’s movement and its controversy garnered new attention when, on September 22, 2017, President Trump spoke at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama. He commented, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a ***** off the field right now, out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’” He went on to say that not standing as is the custom during the playing of the national anthem is “total disrespect of our heritage [and] everything we stand for.”

In response, over 200 players nationwide kneeled or linked arms during the playing of the national anthem, rather than standing. However, by protesting President Trump’s statement, many athletes were actually objecting to Trump instead of supporting Kaepernick’s original protest. Kaepernick’s protest was never intended to be targeted against Trump, but players who have kneeled over the past month have cited their reasons as backlash against the President. Miami Dolphins player Julius Thomas said, “To have the president trying to intimidate people — I wanted to send a message that I don’t condone that.” Drew Brees, a player for the New Orleans Saints, said, “I disagree with what the president said and how he said it. I think it’s very unbecoming of the office of President of the United States to talk like that.”

To understand the intended message of these peaceful protests, it is better to consider the original protests of 2016. The right for Kaepernick and others to express their opinions is uncontroversial: the First Amendment of the Constitution grants citizens of the United States the freedom of speech. Kaepernick on that occasion saw in the American flag a country that “oppresses black people and people of color,” but each American citizen sees the American flag, the emblem of their culture and home, in a different way. Everyone’s perceptions ring true personally, and it is this individuality that creates the fabric of our country’s growth, pride, and achievement. The purpose of the flag, then, is to bring out America’s shared values, and to inspire a sense of identity – which ultimately drives our nation. When Kaepernick knelt before a flag which symbolized injustice to him, he was kneeling before a flag which represented myriad other qualities to different people.

The power of Kaepernick’s protest was different than that of the average person, because of its visibility and the movement it sparked. His objective was to bring to light an issue important to him, but his method of protest is significant, too. Kaepernick played with the 49’ers football team under a specific contract, and was being paid 11.9 million dollars a year in 2016. He was clearly aware of his circumstance and position, and of the powerful impact which his protest would make. Kaepernick wielded widespread influence, and more responsibility because of his large role in American culture. Some saw in his demonstration an acceptable, impactful opportunity for expression, while others saw in it a violation of a time for celebration and national pride.

Ultimately, though Kaepernick’s protest was witnessed by millions and followed by many other NFL, NWSL, WNBA and high school athletes, the effect of his statement was blurred and muffled by its controversial delivery. If America does not have a platform to discuss ideas and issues in a constructive manner, beneficial change is difficult. In the midst of the controversy, many have suggested looking past Kaepernick’s method and focusing on his message, but in truth the two are dependent on each other and cannot be separated. Kaepernick had many potential methods by which to express his opinion, but he risked criticism and chose to express his opinion in this way to symbolically convey his perception of a plagued America. His choice was a double-edged sword: it simultaneously promoted and degraded his intent. As America continues to grapple with national issues, it will be important to consider Kaepernick’s protest as a lesson and strive to find an effective balance between widespread impact and meaningful discourse. While a dramatically stirring, emotional expression may attract more attention, ultimately, it may not foster deeper discussion and exchanges of ideas.