I'm grateful that we appear to be in another era of athletes who aren't afraid to speak out about the social issues of the day after a couple of decades of rising salaries, lucrative endorsements and mostly silent superstars. Kaepernick et al are not the majority yet, but they're using their platforms to draw attention to police brutality and other issues, like Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and other icons before them.
Three weeks after it was first noticed, the legend of Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest continues to grow.
I know that the NFL can be a hype machine because, with most games played only on Sunday, every highlight, blown play, injury or story of the slightest newsworthiness is debated and speculated for an entire week, so of course Kaepernick sitting or kneeling during The Star-Spangled Banner is going to have legs.
Oh, and that social media thing has been known blow a story out of proportion.
Many people who support him point to the openly racist backlash on social media and the more subtle criticism in traditional media as ironic proof of exactly what Kaepernick is kneeling to protest: the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism in the United States.
Others never get past how disrespectful they perceive his protest to be towards their country, the military or whoever, and never mention his cause: police brutality against Black people.
Still more support his constitutional, god-given, even military-defended right to protest but take no stand against the never-ending state-sanctioned violence against Black lives.
Everyone seems to think their view represents the opinion of the people, but clearly there’s no consensus among football fans or Americans. On one hand, the league says that Kap's #7 Niners jersey is the top-selling NFL jersey of the last few weeks, and on the other hand another poll ranked him as the most hated player in the league.
So which is it?
And who’s right?
I’m not surprised by the backlash. The United States is the most patriotic nation on earth and many would say the most blindly patriotic nation.
Even in here in Canada, there is a sense of blind nationalism by white Canadians who ignore our similar history of theft from, and violence against Indigenous peoples and segregation of Black people, not to mention our present problems of murdered and missing Indigenous women and police occupation and murder in Black communities, among others.
Our immigrant communities are often even more conservative and outwardly patriotic in an effort to fit in and not be seen as a threat to Canadian society, which, of course, hasn’t worked (hence the police occupation and murder).
The criticism of Kaepernick that triggers my anger the most is the argument that race and politics have no place in sports.
The ability to not be affected by race and politics is a privilege. To walk safely down any street dressed any way, to be interviewed for a new job by someone who looks and acts like you most of the time, to earn enough money that the outcome of an election doesn’t change your quality of life one way or another… these are privileges.
Race is always a thing in sports, especially in football, where mostly Black players are paid to sweat and risk their lives for teams owned by white men, run by white men and coached almost entirely by white men.
College athletes in the revenue generating sports of basketball and football are mostly Black, earn nothing, but are coached by mostly white millionaire coaches at universities run by mostly white presidents and chancellors and covered by mostly white reporters and commentators. The money they generate pays for scholarships for athletes in sports like lacrosse, tennis and cross-country whose athletes are mostly white, and much more likely to finish their degree and find meaningful work.
Are these examples of how race is embedded in sports not obvious?
As a basketball player at a small historically-Black college (HBCU), I noticed the differences in facilities, medical care and all around support for players between my school, other HBCUs we played against and mostly-white schools of similar size that we visited.
Division III Mississippi College had a spacious basketball arena and a top-ten national ranking; smaller Division III Piedmont College in Georgia had a billionaire alum who paid for a sparkling new fieldhouse with a training room staffed with qualified physical therapists; and our games against NAIA Division II Tennessee Temple had media timeouts because their games were broadcasted on campus radio.
Division III Stillman College, a Black school in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, had a smaller gym than ours and the size of their crowd definitely violated fire code. Fisk University in Nashville had a beautiful historic campus, but its gym was old and gloomy and the scorer’s table was manned by sorority girls. At my school, Oakwood College—well, Martin Luther King once spoke in our gym, and no matter how much I love and miss that place, that’s probably the best thing I can say about it.
As the assistant coach of a club basketball team in Toronto, I watched our team of diverse city kids targeted by referees and fans every time we left the city for a tournament in a smaller, whiter town.
Once, in Windsor, Ontario, a smaller city directly across the river from Detroit, I blew up at an official after a loss. I kicked a metal trash can, screamed at him and he made a shushing hand motion and said “shut up” as if I was a child.
“Ohhhh,” I shouted. “Black men can’t speak in Windsor?” I finally walked away when I noticed my players gathering up Gatorade bottles that had flown out of the trash can I’d punted.
A few months later I had to appear in front of a disciplinary board at Basketball Ontario. I was contrite and genuinely embarrassed about the bad example I’d set for my group of 14-year-olds by berating a referee and obliterating a trash can.
The board—three white men from other smaller, whiter cities—weren’t concerned about that. They only wanted to know how I thought I’d made that poor, innocent white referee feel when I implied that he might have treated my players and me differently because of the colour of our skin.
I was speechless.
And I was suspended for the first three games of the following season.
For being some kind of reverse racist and forgetting to leave my politics outside of the gym.
What I’m really trying to say is that separating race or politics from sports is impossible, but it’s also wrong.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who is loved by white people as much as Dr. King for his use of peaceful resistance to South African apartheid, once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
If you think Kaepernick needs to leave his political views off the field, you’re not being neutral; you’re choosing the side of the oppressor.
Like former Denver Nugget Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf said recently about his own refusal to stand for the national anthem back in 1996, I don’t want to be on that side of history.