On Saturday night, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated as the national anthem was played during the team’s preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” the 28-year-old told reporters after the game.
His action — or, rather, inaction — sent shockwaves throughout the NFL community. In the past 48 hours, Kaepernick has been called “unappreciative” and “ignorant” by former NFL players; others, including a former teammate of his, have said that he was disrespecting the military and being downright unpatriotic.
And in a league that has extremely close ties with the military and nationalism, there are few things worse than being perceived as anti-American.
“I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country.”
But while Kaepernick might not be displaying the one-size-fits-all patriotism that the NFL likes to heavily promote, he is showing patriotism nonetheless.
“I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country,” Kaepernick told reporters on Sunday. “And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone.”
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Kaepernick’s desire is for liberty and justice to be applied uniformly to all American citizens. He is willing to lose his job and lose endorsements in order to speak up for those that he does not feel are getting a fair shake in his country. That is his version of patriotism.
Compare that to the NFL, which treats patriotism as a brand.
Last year, it was revealed that the Department of Defense had paid NFL teams $6.1 million between 2012–2015 for military tributes at games, including the field-sized American flags, flyovers, and fireworks. (The NFL announced in May that it was returning $724,000 of that.)
While the league stages and heavily promotes military family reunions without providing full context, it also fines players, such as former Carolina Panther Josh Norman, for wearing patriotic cleats that do not fit into the NFL’s very strict uniform guidelines.
The league has a Salute to Service campaign, which the league says has raised $1,569,000 for the troops. However, considering the NFL is projecting $13 billion in revenue this year, that’s a mere drop in the bucket.
“[Salute to Service is] an ad campaign,” Drew Margary wrote for Deadspin. “That’s a cheap way for the league to position itself as a kind of unofficial sixth branch of the military.”
Petty Officer First Class Jordan Plocher told VICE Sports last year that if the NFL really wanted to salute the troops, it would “create a path for veterans to employment opportunities or internships within the league and its teams.”
All in all, Kaepernick fits the official definition of patriot — “a person who regards himself or herself as a defender, especially of individual rights, against presumed interference by the federal government” — far more than than the NFL does.
“This country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all, and it’s not happening for all right now.”
“This stand wasn’t for me. This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way,” Kaepernick said. “This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Kaepernick hasn’t experienced racism. On Sunday he spoke about helping a friend move, only to have cops come and point guns at him and another black friend, assuming they were intruders. When he was named the starting quarterback for the 49ers, there was racially-charged criticism of his tattoos and leadership skills.
But Kaepernick knows that compared to most, he has it good. He sat during the national anthem because black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by the police. Unarmed black Americans are five times as likely as unarmed white Americans to be shot and killed by police. And far too often, there is no punishment for police officers committing these murders.
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Kaepernick might not have a spot on an NFL roster for much longer — there are rumors that the 49ers will release him for “football reasons” — but as long as he has a platform, he plans to follow in the footsteps of athlete activists before him, most notably Muhammad Ali.
While Ali was nearly universally celebrated when he passed away earlier this year, he was not always so popular. But he continued to fight to end racism and challenge the systems of oppression that were so rooted throughout our democracy, and along the way, showed that there are many different ways to love your country.
“See, Ali’s message wasn’t always neat and tidy. His legacy was complicated and brilliant. But that is why he was so important. He said things people needed to hear, even if they disagreed. Even if they violently disagreed,” Mike Freeman wrote for Bleacher Report.
“If you celebrated Ali but condemn Kaepernick, then you never fully understood Ali, because they are saying the exact…same…thing.”
For his part, Kaepernick plans to continue to sit during the national anthem until he sees significant progress.
“This country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all, and it’s not happening for all right now,” Kaepernick said. “To me this is something that has to change, and when there’s significant change and I feels like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent and this country is representing people the way it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”