Normally at this time of year, sports media would have non-stop buzz about the upcoming pro and college football seasons, as well as speculation about the baseball postseason. Thanks to a politically charged publicity stunt by a certain quarterback, that is not the case this week. Given the current hot topic on sports media and comparison to some prominent Spartan athletics alumni, this is a rare time you’ll see politics alluded in an article here.
When I was a student at San Jose State, I often walked past the Olympic Black Power Statue while going between the King Library and College of Engineering, probably the two places on campus I spent most of my time not named Spartan Stadium (now CEFCU Stadium) or the Event Center. The statue depicted former San Jose State track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, having won gold and bronze respectively, bowing their heads and raising their fists while on the medal podium following the 200 meter event. They intended to bring international attention to issues facing black Americans at the time, as it was just a few years since the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act ended de jure denials of education, voting, and other services to people of color.
Fast forward nearly 50 years to now. What Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination” still exist in a different name than Jim Crow, separate but equal, or the various other skeletons in America’s closet. Explanations for the causes of modern racial inequalities vary, from the individual to systemic levels. San Francisco 49ers and former Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick, desperate for relevancy amidst declining performance and a possible roster cut, decided to take advantage of recent media attention surrounding police killings of black Americans. On Friday night, before the 49ers’ home exhibition game against the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick sat down during the playing of the national anthem, during which it is custom to stand up and look towards the U.S. flag.
Why did Kaepernick do this? He explained in a post-game interview: "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."
Predictably, his statement sparked massive backlash. Videos of fans burning their Kaepernick jerseys became popular online. Martin Halloran, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, wrote an angry letter to 49ers CEO Jed York and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell that called Kaepernick insensitive and naive. Also, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose recent online campaign ads tout “American Pride”, called on Kaepernick to “find a country that works better for him,” something he said “won’t happen.”
While it may be tempting to defend Kaepernick by bringing up past athletes who took strong political stands in the face of mainstream opposition, doing so is flawed. On Esquire.com, Peter Wade compared Kaepernick’s actions to those of Smith and Carlos in 1968, as well as Muhammad Ali in that same decade. Filmmaker Spike Lee (whose last successful film was in 2006) also made a similar comparison. Smith, Carlos, and Ali all made their bold political stands after reaching achievements. In Ali’s case, he was heavyweight champion in 1964, two years before openly resisting the Vietnam War draft and subsequently being convicted of draft evasion. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971. What has Kaepernick achieved in the NFL other than starting for the Super Bowl runners-up and throwing the losing interception a year later in the NFC Championship? He has not had a Pro Bowl selection or any postseason honors in his short pro career.
Michael Jordan is another example of a famous athlete who prioritized his athletic interests before activism. Having never taken a stance on political issues, the Basketball Hall of Famer donated $1 million each to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Institute for Community-Police Relations. Those who criticized Jordan as being a Johnny-come-lately might want to rethink their stance following the Kaepernick brouhaha.
Furthermore, in the cases of Smith, Carlos, and Jordan, they had teams to support: Smith and Carlos the U.S. national track team and Jordan the Chicago Bulls (as a player), Charlotte Bobcats and later Hornets (as an executive), and his eponymous Nike clothing brand. They could ill afford to derail their teams’ goals, which is why Smith and Carlos did not follow Harry Edwards’s boycott of the 1968 games known as the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
In contrast with how Ali, Smith, Carlos, and Jordan orchestrated their political moments, Kaepernick’s move reeked of an egotistic plea for attention. As Damon Bruce said on his Monday show on 95.7 the Game (audio at 44:20): “It’s not about standing; it’s not about sitting; it’s not about tweeting or retweeting your own or unoriginal thought. It’s actions.” Thus, it remains to be seen what Kaepernick will actually do to stand up for his beliefs now that he has the public’s attention. During the Vietnam War, Ali spoke against the war and racism at college campuses across the country. After retiring from boxing, Ali embarked on a second career as a humanitarian. Smith had been involved in anti-racism activism as a San Jose State student before the Olympics and continues to speak on social justice issues today. What about you, Colin?
Smith told USA Today: “I support [Kaepernick] because he’s bringing the truth out – regardless of how done.” He added in an interview Tuesday morning (audio 1:40) on 95.7 the Game that Kaepernick is making a “great sacrifice.” However Smith sees it, given Kaepernick’s fall from grace football-wise, I see things differently but am open to changing my mind should Kaepernick turn symbols into actions like Ali did. Until that happens, Kaepernick’s sitting down is unconstructive, counterproductive nonsense.