This NFL season has been as much about protest as it has been about football. San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, brought the NFL to the forefront of a major civil rights discussion when he decided to sit for the national anthem in the preseason. Kaepernick claimed he was not going to “stand up and show pride for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Kaepernick specifically brought attention to the police brutality against black people and people of color. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Immediately after Kaepernick’s protest, there was a waive of negative reactions accusing him of disrespecting the military. But Kaepernick quickly debunked this, saying “I have great respect for the men and women that fought for this country,” making it clear that his protest has nothing to do with the military. After all, it is the U.S. national anthem, not the U.S. military anthem. He’s been clear from the beginning that he is protesting one specific issue he has with the country he lives in. A country that’s best attribute is that it gives its citizens the freedom to speak their minds and stand up for important causes. Kaepernick even decided to change his approach and take a knee instead of sitting for the national anthem to continue supporting his cause while showing respect to the military.
Many NFL players have joined Kaepernick in his protest, and many others have said they respect his cause and right to protest, but they still choose to stand in respect for their country. All of the above are very reasonable reactions. But there have been many other unreasonable reactions, mostly from people who don’t want to think about the idea that racism and police brutality against black people are real problems, and would rather redirect the discussion by arguing that his protest is offensive or troublesome for reasons completely unrelated to race.
Exhibit A: Trent Dilfer.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, Trent Dilfer is the worst quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl, riding the heels of a Ravens defense that was one of the best in NFL history. Now he makes a living screaming into the camera at ESPN while veins pop out of his perfectly round bald head, as he harshly criticizes players that are much better than he ever was. Dilfer’s issue was not that Kaepernick was anti-American, or anti-military, but that Kaepernick is a “backup quarterback.” Dilfer claims a backup quarterback’s job is to “be quiet, and sit in the shadows, and get the starter ready to play week one.” Funny coming from a guy who left football to talk for a living when he was no longer wanted as a starter or backup quarterback by any team in the NFL. Kaepernick quickly fired back at Dilfer, appropriately labeling his comments as “ridiculous.” Kaepernick explained, “You are telling me that my position as a backup QB and being quiet is more important than people’s lives.” This is just a small sample of Kaepernick’s verbal beatdown of Dilfer.
Dilfer’s off-base concept was echoed by Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press – Democrat. Cohn is a longtime whiney curmudgeon, and terrible sportswriter, who has been attempting to smear Kaepernick since he began his protest, with weekly factless articles overselling the idea that Kaepernick has somehow had a negative impact on his team. In a press conference in September, Cohn tried to force 49ers coach Chip Kelly into belittling Kaepernick’s cause. Kelly firmly denied Cohn’s efforts, while somehow managing to keep his cool during Cohn’s extreme dickishness. The exchange, as well as Lowell Cohn’s impressive level of unprofessionalism, can be seen here:
Yes Chip, that is the great thing about this country. But like Trent Dilfer, Cohn tried to hide behind the safety net of claiming he respects Kaepernick’s cause, but… he should be more focused on football instead. Yes, if only Martin Luther King had focused more on sports the world would be a better place… No, I’m not saying Colin Kaepernick is MLK, but he has made it clear throughout this process that he is dedicated to an important cause. But people like Trent Dilfer and Lowell Cohn continue to argue that his fight for human rights is overshadowed by his lack of devotion to football, despite the fact that Chip Kelly and 49ers CEO Jed York have praised Kaepernick for bringing attention to an important issue, and for his football work ethic.
In fact, Chip Kelly announced this week that Kaepernick will take over as the 49ers starting quarterback on Sunday. So obviously his devotion to football has been strong enough to win back the starting job for one of the most iconic franchises in the NFL. It looks like Trent Dilfer and Lowell Cohn will have to come up with new reasons to disrespect Kaepernick’s protest.
If disrespect is what you’re looking for, look no further than Donald Trump. After Kaepernick called Trump “openly racist,” which is hard to argue, since blatant racism has pretty much been his entire political platform, Trump responded by saying, “maybe he should find a country that works better for him.” The great thing about America is, he doesn’t have to. He can stay right here, love his country, but still exercise his right to protest. It’s kind of ironic that a man who is running for president with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” suggesting that our country isn’t great, and constantly bashing our current president, is telling someone peacefully protesting a very important issue that he should leave this country if he doesn’t like it.
So if that’s how Trump feels, maybe he should take his own advice. If America is really in such a terrible state, and the president is really such a disgrace, do what you just told Kaepernick to do, and get the hell out! Otherwise, deal with the fact that people in this country are allowed to voice their issues with the government, the police, or any other problems they have, even if those people aren’t old white racist billionaires.
The most recent angry old white person with harsh words for Colin Kaepernick was Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Ginsberg, who has spent much of her life on the forefront of women’s rights issues in America, called Kaepernick’s form of protest “dumb and disrespectful,” in an interview with Katie Couric for Yahoo Global News. “I would have the same answer if you asked me about flag burning. I think it’s a terrible thing to do.” Ginsberg continued to condemn Kaepernick and other NFL players who have exercised their right to protest by sitting or kneeling for the national anthem, but refused to address the race issues they are actually protesting.
Colin Kaepernick had a strong response to Ginsberg, as he has to all of his detractors, saying, “it is disappointing to hear a Supreme Court Justice call a protest against injustices and oppression ‘stupid’… the flag is just a piece of cloth and I am not going to value a piece of cloth over people’s lives.” I never thought we would see the day that an NFL player would be schooling a Supreme Court Justice and a presidential candidate on human rights issues, but here we are.
It’s time to start respecting the fact that Colin Kaepernick has a great reason to be protesting. He has made it clear that the only part of America he is protesting is police brutality against black people and people of color. His message is not that all police are bad, but that police who use unnecessary violence need to be held accountable. It’s possible to admit this is a problem and still support the police, just like it’s possible to want your head coach fired but still be a fan of your team.
And it’s important that we acknowledge that white privilege exists and that people of color deal with much more difficulties in America than white people do. That doesn’t mean white people never have to struggle in America, it doesn’t mean that your accomplishments are less significant if you’re white, and it doesn’t mean you have to spend your entire life apologizing for your race. No one is asking for that. Just try keep it in perspective and be respectful of what Colin Kaepernick and many others are standing for. Can you honestly say he doesn’t have a point? Can you truly tell yourself that America doesn’t have a problem with police brutality against black people?
If you have an intelligent comment on this discussion, I think you should feel free to express it no matter what your race or background is, which is exactly what I’m trying to do now. But if you really want to join the discussion that Colin Kaepernick is trying to encourage, then join that discussion. The discussion about police brutality against black people in America. Don’t hide behind the anti-military argument, or the anti-flag argument, or the devotion to football argument, or anything else that detracts from his cause.
This Sunday, when Kaepernick takes back his job as the 49ers starting quarterback, he’ll be the focal point of the NFL. Unfortunately many people will try to tie the relevance of his protest to his success on the football field, where the cards are stacked against him playing for a 1-4 team that’s in rebuilding mode. But Kaepernick’s cause is much more important than football, and win or lose, starter or backup, he’s using his fame to stand up for something he thinks is important. He’s willing to take all the controversy, criticism and anger being thrown his way, and he’s continuing to fight for his cause. I think that’s something everyone should be able to respect.