When NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick declared his intent to remain seated during pregame performances of the national anthem this season, it underlined the fact that dissent is a sign of the American political system working, not malfunctioning.
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he told NFL.com, adding that "[t]here are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
Predictably, his protest was immediately misconstrued as an insult to Americans serving in the military — as if the national anthem or the flag represent the armed forces specifically and not the country as a whole. A story published Wednesday on Bleacher Report cites conversations with seven unnamed NFL executives who all said they wouldn't hire Kaepernick now, and predicted he'd soon be released by the San Francisco 49ers and never play again. One executive called him a "traitor."
The message is: You live in a free country where you can speak your mind, so shut up.
Professional sports in this country are peculiarly interwoven not just with patriotism but with cheerleading of the military. A report issued by Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona last year detailed how the Department of Defense doled out $6.8 million to professional sports teams to sponsor apparent acts of patriotism, like honoring soldiers at games; the NFL earlier this year announced it would return $723,734 received through such arrangements.
Players and coaches periodically dress in special military-themed uniforms that sometimes go beyond the integration of stylized camouflage to approximate the look of a sporty US Army Ranger. In recent years the NFL has designated the month of November for such displays, trumpeting details like camouflage towels and helmet decals saluting branches of the military.
This all amounts to an implicit ideological statement. Consider that there are no special games for which teams are attired like nurses, or soup kitchen volunteers, or civil rights lawyers. If such a thing seems absurd, why is it any more so than dressing up an NFL team as if it's about to storm the beach at Normandy?
The greatest secular sin you can commit in this country is to be unpatriotic during wartime. That's why the knee-jerk urge to label good-faith political comment as unpatriotic is so damaging. It's part of a troubling trend. The identification and discussion of existing social problems is too often presented, in an Orwellian twist, as the problem itself. When Barack Obama talks about the unique challenges facing black Americans, the right inexplicably decries him as "dividing" the nation. When labor advocates talk about unprecedented levels of income inequality, we're told they're waging "class war."
The technique is deliberate; the effect of closing off discussion about sensitive issues is, of course, to reinforce the status quo.
Yet we've seen more and more political activism from professional athletes, and that's a good thing. It's a reflection of the fact that painful realities about life in this country have entered mainstream debate in ways they haven't in decades. It says a lot when members of the St. Louis Rams take the field making the "hands up, don't shoot" gesture to acknowledge the events in Ferguson, or when NBA players, including LeBron James and Kevin Garnett, perform their pregame warm-ups in t-shirts reading "I Can't Breathe," after Eric Garner was suffocated to death by a police chokehold.
It says these highly visible members of society, who traditionally have been expected to act like good soldiers and toe the line, feel increasingly empowered to direct their fame and influence toward highlighting some of the wrongs they see around them. Yet we're fixated on whether their actions are appropriate or not, and whether they should be disciplined. Social injustice is the problem here, not athletes' discussion of it.
We constantly call on athletes to be role models. But that means more than visiting kids in the hospital or showing reverence for the national anthem. It means standing up for what you believe in. And sometimes it means sitting down.