San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem as a form of protest against our country’s treatment of black people has sparked outrage, sprinkled with a small dose of support. In this view, neither is justified.
In some circles, Kaepernick is being compared to Muhammad Ali, which is perhaps the greatest outrage in this entire controversy. The key difference – there are many others - between Kaepernick and Ali is the level of sacrifice each made by protesting injustice as they saw it in this country. In 2014, Kaepernick signed a 6-year, $114 million contract with the 49ers that included a $12 million signing bonus and $61 million in guaranteed salary. By engaging in a sit-down – now a kneel-down - protest, he forfeited none of his $73 million in guaranteed money.
Ali, on the other hand, gave up everything when he refused to report for Army induction. He was stripped of his heavyweight title, lost his boxing license and potentially forfeited his career. His act of protest was a felony punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and five years in prison. After more than three years out of the ring, he was spared incarceration when the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) overturned his conviction. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen’s comments to Dan Quayle during a 1988 Vice Presidential debate, anyone with a fleeting knowledge of Ali knows that Colin Kaepernick is no Muhammad Ali.
Despite any personal feelings about Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem, he has every legal right to do so. SCOTUS has repeatedly affirmed that the First Amendment guarantees the right to protest silently. There’s a distinction between citizen rights and public (majority) preferences.
Which brings us to another debate: What does our nation’s flag stand for? Like most things in a democracy, there is no unanimity on that issue. It represents different things to different people. For some, it symbolizes the sacrifices paid by millions of Americans. For them, Kaepernick is disrespecting not only the flag, but our troops and our country. For others, the flag denotes oppression and genocide. As one example, it was carried by our troops in battle when the avowed goal of our government was to wipe out this country’s Native Americans.
Much of the criticism of Kaepernick’s actions focuses on his protest taking place on the football field. Athletes should keep their activism on social issues off the field of play, the argument goes. But that ignores the obvious. Kaepernick’s celebrity status revolves around his ability to play football. How many people would show up to hear Kaepernick give a speech on our nation’s oppression of people of color? When Kaepernick can no longer perform on the football field, he will become just another face in the crowd, one in a population of 325 million.
Although Kaepernick’s actions don’t violate any law, the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement gives Commissioner Roger Goodell the authority to suspend players for violating the League’s personal conduct policy. Would refusal to stand for the anthem fall into that category? It could, given the broad interpretation ascribed to the policy. Such a move would not be unprecedented.
In 1996 the NBA suspended the Denver Nuggets’ Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf indefinitely for failure to stand for the national anthem. But a suspension of Kaepernick would surely prompt a grievance from the players’ union and serve to further fuel the controversy.
For many of us, it’s difficult to draw a connection between sitting during the national anthem and protesting social or racial injustice, any more than standing for the national anthem amounts to an endorsement of such action. Most people stand for the anthem in recognition of the sacrifices made by so many who came before us and to acknowledge that we live in the greatest country in the world. Among the most treasured gifts we have in this country are the rights to think and protest as we see fit.
As much as we may disagree with Kaepernick, rather than criticize him we should give thanks for his right to protest in the fashion he chooses. And while Kaepernick sits for the national anthem, I will stand to demonstrate love for our country despite its warts and imperfections, while doing what I can to make it better.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.