Colin Kaepernick is back in the news. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback made headlines last season, not for completing a pass, but for taking a knee. Not during the game, but during the singing of our national anthem, the Star Spangled Banner, in protest of it.
Actually, his first protest was to sit during the anthem, which he later explained was because “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” in light of a series of deaths of African-American males, largely unarmed, at the hands of law enforcement officers during interrogations and/or arrests.
He later changed the form of protest from sitting to kneeling, which he said was out of respect to present and former members of the military. “Kap,” as he is commonly known, burst into the national sports limelight in 2012, when filling in for Alex Smith displayed incredible athleticism both in throwing the football and running with it.
He took over games, winning them seemingly singlehandedly, and was the darling of the NFL. After taking the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012 and to the NFC Championship Game in 2013, Kap’s star began to fade. Defenses – as is usually the case –figured out how to deal with his highly effective, unorthodox style of play. In short order, he became quite ordinary, and then even less so, to the point that he was benched.
In losing his starting role, Kap also lost his relevance. I’m no psychologist, but when I take a look at Kap – who seems to have a tattoo everywhere from head to toe, and who often sports an oversized afro that – unlike that hairstyle’s heyday in the 1970s, popularized by sports legends like Julius “Dr. J.” Erving – it seems clear that he wants to be noticed.
So, what could be worse for someone virtually screaming “Notice me! Notice me!” than obscurity? Not surprisingly, Kap began making controversial remarks –not related to the national anthem or to the treatment of African-Americans, those came later – off the field, which got him a bit of press coverage.
But it was the anthem protest that catapulted Kap back into the spotlight, with some
exalting him as a modern-day Rosa Parks, and daring to compare him to Muhammad Ali. As an Ali fan both in and out of the ring, I take exception.
Here’s why: When Muhammad Ali – arguably the greatest heavyweight (if not overall fighter) ever to box – refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army as a protest to American foreign policy, namely, the War in Vietnam, he made a tremendous personal sacrifice the likes of which is rarely seen. In the army, the heavyweight champion of the world, already one of the most celebrated figures on the planet, would have had it easy. He would not have seen combat.
His life would not have been in any danger. He would be shuttled to Army bases overseas to put on boxing exhibitions for the troops. He would have been seen as a national hero by liberals and conservatives alike.
Instead, Ali took his lumps like a man. Remaining true to his principles, Ali was stripped of his title, banned from boxing during the height of his prime for three years – in a sport where every day of youth is precious – and faced the wrath of the growing rightwing contingent that was already growling at all the protesting peaceniks. But Colin Kaepernick is very different.
Realizing his future with the 49ers was bleak, he announced his free agency (i.e., other NFL teams could sign him to a contract), and said that he would no longer sit or kneel for the national anthem. He would resume standing, because, he said, a positive change – implicitly as a result of his initial protest – has been created, and so he no longer wished to remain polarizing and detract from the game. Though I hate to be a cynic, to me, that says:
“Situation Wanted: former NFL star on the decline seeks fresh start with new team. Gets along well with others. Does not create controversy.”In stark contrast, Ali never said: “Ok, just reinstate my boxing license and I’ll enlist in the Army. I’ve started a conversation, so I no longer want to detract.”
That’s the difference.
My column would have ended here, were it not for a recent discussion I had with a longtime friend – an African-American and veteran of the civil rights movement in the Sixties – who, knowing I am a strong supporter of the president, said to me: “you gave Trump a pass for his transgressions, I’m giving one to Kap.”
That short statement, eloquent in its simplicity, was brilliant, and it opened my eyes. I now understood why he and so many others strongly support Colin Kaepernick.
It is not that they are blind to his imperfections, or think he of all people deserves to lead the noble fight for equality, it is that for whatever reason, he’s the one who got the conversation going, and so his motives are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if taking a knee during the national anthem is just a “new tattoo” to get him noticed. The important part is that he got noticed.
Similarly, even though I have long debunked false accusations about the president (that he never “called Mexicans rapists” is just one of many), no one can seriously deny that there are things Donald Trump never should have done. Granted, calling Rosie O’Donnell a “fat pig” and bragging (albeit, thinking it was a private conversation) about being such a celebrity stud that women are perfectly willing to let him grab them by their privates, were made when he was still a civilian. But they are still not things to be proud of.
Moreover, Candidate Trump retweeted others’ vulgarities about Megyn Kelly (i.e., that she is a “bimbo”), and President Trump tweeted about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s low ratings on The Apprentice. So why do I still strongly support him? Because of the message:
1) he rails against the establishment, including, quite admirably, blasting members of his own party (a rarity among politicians);
2) takes a strong stand against Sanctuary Cities;
3) blasts greedy corporations for outsourcing jobs;
4) demands that NATO allies pay their fair share instead of letting the United States do all the heavy lifting – on and off the battlefield;
and 5) exposes the American media, which for the most part has been a disgrace since the mid-1990s.
And for that message, I’ll take a flawed messenger. Just as the civil rights champions, never yielding in their quest for equality in all respects, will support a flawed messenger too.
Looking at it that way, perhaps as a nation we can get dissenting sides to begin talking to each other again, instead of past each other.