Let's see, what exactly did Colin Kaepernick do to draw monumental scorn from maddened hordes with molten lava spewing from their ears? The punkish quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers—who's seen better days on the field—sat out the National Anthem of the United States of America during a preseason professional football game. When asked why he did it, he said it was in protest of a country that isn't treating black people fairly and he pointed directly at police officers. He also told reporters he has "great respect" for the military and people who fight for this country, but that didn't make it into the first paragraph of most early media reports.
The people who justifiably equate respect for the military with standing up and honoring the U.S. flag during the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" are jersey-burning mad at the 28-year-old.
I've never had a reason to like Kaepernick. He was the enemy during the 2013 Super Bowl when the 49ers faced off against my hometown Baltimore Ravens. It was euphoric to watch Baltimore (birthplace of Francis Scott Key's war ditty that became the National Anthem) hand San Francisco its first-ever Super Bowl loss. After that Kaepernick disappeared from the radar.
Now that he's literally put himself in the hot seat, my reaction isn't to loathe him for taking this seemingly out-of-nowhere moral stand. Rather, I want to see what he does next.
That doesn't just mean watching to see if he sits out the anthem again when the 49ers visit San Diego's ever-so-humble Qualcomm Stadium Thursday night for the final NFL preseason game against the Chargers. Kaepernick says he will continue to sit during the anthem until he sees "significant change, and I feel like that flag represents what it's supposed to represent, this country is representing people the way that it's supposed to..." Asked to be specific about a change he's concerned about, he said, "police brutality."
So who's weighed in since then? The easier question is who with a Twitter handle hasn't? The San Francisco Police Officers Association wants the 49ers and the National Football League to speak up on Kaepernick's actions and "denounce his foolish statements." Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump tweeted, "Maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try. It won't happen." (Wait, so America is presently great? Ahh, never mind.)
The word from the White House was, "We surely acknowledge and even defend his right to express those views," said President Obama's Press Secretary Josh Earnest. "Even as objectionable as we find his perspective, he certainly is entitled to express them."
Yes, he is. The First Amendment declares the right of free speech for everyone. A professional athlete has the right to state his beliefs on social justice issues. (On this rare flashpoint moment involving an NFL player, no illegal act has been committed.) Likewise, members of San Diego's military community are free to express disdain for a professional athlete who disrespects the symbol of the country they've committed to defend with their lives.
But the rush to judgment on Twitter, spurred by mob mentality, is getting old. If only knee-jerk troll hysteria could be deemed a fad and be supplanted on social media by a thoughtful-reflection trend. It's not impossible to take three deep breaths before hurling emojis on Facebook.
So an NFL quarterback—one who played in a Super Bowl—has spoken up on race relations in the United States. I'd be thrilled to witness a movement in which more pro athletes speak their minds, endorsement money be damned. Kaepernick made both a bold and a distasteful statement. Rather than pull the trigger and ask questions later, I suggest we see where this is going. Will he back this up with meaningful action?
Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose, and if Kaepernick is just trying to draw attention to himself before he gets cut and his career fades, then he deserves to be vilified.
For the moment, though, how about paying attention to the message and not just the delivery method? The majority of cops are decent, upstanding, praiseworthy and brave souls—but there's an obvious disconnect between blue and black worlds. A kickstart toward serious and thoughtful dialogue on race relations in this country is long overdue. And it is welcome, even if it's in the form of a wobbly Hail Mary from the sidelines.