Before this weekend when I thought of Colin Kaepernick, I thought of the guy who took the NFL by storm in his early seasons. I imagined the NFC West becoming a yearly battle between Russell Wilson and Kaep, two young, dark skinned quarterbacks with incredible athletic gifts and instant superstar status. In recent years, the Stars seemed to be on opposite trajectories. Wilson is a perennial pro bowler and uncontested leader of the Seahawks offense while Kaep came into the season competing for a position with Blaine Gabbert. Yep… Blaine Gabbet. That’s bad.
So, I come to this story which has surprisingly taken over the news cycle. Kaep refuses to stand for the national anthem and then gives what was, in my mind, an elegant defense of why he didn’t and will not stand. He spoke of the injustice with which many Americans have to live. He spoke of wanting to see the nation live up to its ideals. Of course he was criticized and called horrible names by fans and the media. The outrage machine was in full effect!
As this story broke, I was in the process of thinking through my yearly apologia for my NFL fandom. This year’s tact: just own the fact that I’m a pretty awful person sometimes. Then this story and the fact that people who don’t give a crap about football suddenly had really strong opinions about what this athlete was doing. It felt (feels) a little hypocritical to see people who don’t approve of the sport Kaep plays suddenly coming around to his defense and I wonder if those people, many whom are my friends are missing the point.
I’ll make it simple: if you’ve ever referred to football as “sportsball” then what Kaep did was not for you.
The NFL is the crown jewel of the American empire. It’s a multi-billion dollar corporation built around an inherently violent game. We are the only nation in the world that plays this quintessentially American game. Football, we can call it that because screw you soccer, has long surpassed baseball as America’s pastime. All of the scandals, all of the concussion studies, all of the hand wringing about the promotion of violence have done virtually nothing to decrease the sport’s popularity. Or profitability. Football is about as American as things get.
The NFL has often been compared to modern gladiatorial fights. Using that analogy, Kaepernick is the gladiator who, in the midst of the arena said “I will not bow to Caesar”. This is a big deal for all Americans but particularly for those of us who regularly consume the NFL’s product. In the midst of our nation’s biggest spectacle, the circus in the bread and circuses equation, Kaep stood up… Sat down…to say Rome is evil and we are complicit. We were shaken out of the illusion, even if just for a moment, to be awakened to realities that many of our country live with each day. We’re reminded that we’re watching a product where the ownership is 100% white and the players are 67% black and that for many of those players, football was an escape route. It’s a reminder that many of these men came from communities where interactions with law enforcement could be deadly. It’s a reminder that these men are more than the stats they produce. Kaep called America itself, its values and its morals into question in the midst of America celebrating its own grandeur. This is bold, prophetic action.
What Colin Kaepernick did is already having a ripple effect. Current and former players are being asked for their opinions. Some are saying that they will stand (sit) with Kaep. Others are calling out his method but not his message. The NFL and its employees are being forced to use their spotlight and copious influence to take sides in issues of justice. That is no small thing. More importantly, those of us who watch the NFL are being forced to consider issues of justice, even those surrounding the very product we consume. It’s a moment of conscience, a moment of reflection in a sport that is often resistant to such things. Imagine if it was the collective will of those of us who love the game that began to move public policy in the direction of justice. Imagine if the considerable economic impact of the NFL fan base was mobilized to promote change. Imagine if that 67% of players became ambassadors for under served communities across the country.
I’m not naive enough to believe that this will be some huge watershed moment for equality in our nation, but I do know that the climate we’re in right now is unique and maybe the collective will is moving in the direction of progress. Like it or not, the core of America is watching the NFL every Sunday and on Monday nights. It is we, the audience of the largest game in town, that needed to see what Kaep did and take notice. The time may becoming when we cannot be both a fan and neutral on issues of justice. May it be so.