Taking a Knee (to the Face)

By Mike Cronin

After several highly-publicized shootings of young black men by white police officers in 2015 and 2016, San Francisco ‘49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem at the beginning of football games. In one post-game interview, Kaepernick explained: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Since then, Mr. Kaepernick has lost his job, but several players, and in some cases entire teams, have begun emulating his actions. Many fans have been outraged, including President Trump. Both attendance at stadiums and ratings for televised games are way down. This story is vitiating the country.  So, what gives? Let’s unpack it a bit.

First and foremost is whether the protests are having, or can have, the desired effect: eliminating racism, especially alleged police brutality driven by alleged white racism against blacks. That will be hard to measure, since each and every case of alleged racially-driven brutality must be judged against the context of the situation and the facts of the incident that precipitated it. We cannot rationally, automatically infer that just because a young black man is shot and killed by a white cop that there was any racial bias (or injustice of any kind) involved; that has to be proven.  In some cases it is, in many more, the opposite conclusion is reached.

Second is the issue of context and message delivery. While Mr. Kaepernick told the press his actions were taken in protest to police brutality, in his statement above he conflates police brutality with the entire country being oppressive against blacks and other minorities: “I am not going to…show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people…” This is perhaps the most contentious aspect of the entire affair. Mr. Kaepernick may have been the subject of racism and police brutality himself at some point (I have no idea), but as someone who made more money in a single game than most NFL fans will make in several years, he is at best an unlikely spokesperson against oppression. He brought further ambiguity to his alleged anti-oppression message by wearing socks depicting a pig in a police hat during training camp:

And by attending as press conference wearing a pro Fidel Castro T-shirt:

That tone-deafness has now been amplified by entire teams of seven- and eight-digit salary earners “taking a knee” for the anthem (in stadiums often built with the aid of tax subsidies) to protest the “oppression” of the nation that gave them the opportunity to become one-percenters, while the people that defend that opportunity in some cases don’t even make enough to buy groceries without resorting to food stamps.

Maybe Mr. Kaepernick really is just trying to turn the national conversation towards the elimination of police brutality and racism. Or, perhaps Mr. Kaepernick hates cops and hates America. Or both, or neither. The trouble is: his message is mixed, and those who are emulating him are diluting it further. Are we to accept that our entire country is racist and oppressive? Racism and oppression have certainly existed and will continue to exist, in this country and elsewhere, as long as humans refuse to treat others as individuals, instead of as units. Even so, I don’t think we have to accept the premise that the entire country is that way now. After all, every racial barrier to high office or position has been broken: President of the United States. Senator. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Secretary of State. Ambassador. CEO. Doctor. Lawyer. Astronaut. General. Police Officer. Professor. Sports Star.

That leaves police brutality. Are we instead to infer that all police are brutal, racist thugs? That’s a ludicrous proposition that I won’t even dignify with a rebuttal.

Third: Rights. The players protesting the anthem absolutely have the right to do so, but they do not have the right to usurp someone else’s platform to spread their message, nor can they reasonably expect that they can piss off their employers’ customers and keep their jobs.

Lastly: Importance. In the grand scheme of things, the NFL, its games, its ratings, and its stadium attendance are irrelevancies, but the issues of racism, police brutality, and patriotism are not. I don’t know, or care, what Mr. Kaepernick really believes or what message he thinks he was really trying to get across, but he certainly started a national conversation about…something. To borrow from Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria, Superintendent of the US Air Force Academy:

If you cannot treat your fellow Americans with dignity and respect, then get out.

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