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Charles Henry, professor emeritus, African American studies | September 16, 2016

By refusing to stand for the national anthem, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has launched a widespread discussion about police brutality that probably surprises even him. Of course, as with most controversial protest tactics, the message often gets lost in the outrage over the protest. Nonetheless, the response to Kaepernick and his message can be discussed on at least three levels.

Colin Kaepernick

(Flickr photo by Adam Fagen)

First, where does Kap’s action fit in the long history of black protest in sports. It is useful to remember that several athletes who took controversial actions at the time are now immortalized as national icons. Jackie Robinson once said that given America’s history he could not stand for the national anthem preceding baseball games. Robinson had once faced military court-martial for refusing to ride in the back of the bus when he was in the army. Muhammad Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam so outraged the nation that sportscasters and newspapers refused to use his Muslim name and he was immediately stripped of his title and banned from boxing. Ali memorably said that they won’t let him “fight” in the U.S. but they wanted him to “kill” in Vietnam. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who have just had a statute of them unveiled at San Jose State University, were quickly denounced and shipped home from the Mexico City Olympics after their Black Power salute.

Second, Kaepernick’s decision to protest during the national anthem has drawn attention to the ritual itself. His detractors have charged that he is showing disrespect to the military for not standing. Yet the military does not own the national anthem and it has no integral connection to football or any other sport. Playing the national anthem before sporting events is not a universally shared custom. Moreover, the national anthem itself shows disrespect for the enslaved who were fighting for their freedom under the British in the war of 1812. The “third stanza” of the “Star-Spangled Banner” states: “their blood has wash’d out their foul footstep pollution, no refuge could save the hireling and slave….”

Third, the reaction to Kaepernick has raised some interesting — and often hidden questions — about well-paid athletes and the business of football. The NFL tightly controls what their players do and say as well as the way they dress. Yet when young black men who play football decide to protest the murders of other young black men, it creates a tension in a league where the players are approximately 70 percent black and coaches who are 70 percent white. And when a baseball executive like Tony LaRussa says he would tell players to keep their protests in the clubhouse, he is speaking from the perspective of someone whose league has only a five percent black representation. Even then, I doubt that Jackie Robinson would bow to LaRussa’s authority.

Kaepernick has followed up his protest by pledging a million dollars to organizations working for social justice, and the 49ers have agreed to match his pledge. His actions have drawn support from other pro football players, high school football players and soccer players, among others. It could be the beginning of a true national discourse that demonstrates “entertainment” cannot be separated from the context in which it occurs.