Coin Stance/Our Toss: Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest has a loud message

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In this new CU Independent segment, Coin Toss and Our Stance, traditionally of the Sports and Opinion sections, merge together to tackle relevant issues that cover a broad range of topics. In this pilot article, Assistant Opinion Editor Hayla Wong and Head Sports Editor Justin Guerriero look at San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his decision to take a knee during the national anthem in order to protest discrimination against people of color.

Hayla Wong: Kaepernick has roused tempers but also conversation this past week with his ongoing silent protest against the national anthem at his pre-season games. The controversy began when the 49ers quarterback remained seated during the opening celebrations of a game in late August. He has since dropped to a knee. Many critics are calling his (in)actions unpatriotic and anti-American while other organizations are sitting in solidarity with Kaepernick’s cause.

Kaepernick’s message is an important one: This country has seen far too much violence against minorities — namely African Americans — go unchecked, forgiven and validated. Kaepernick summed up his stance: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Kaepernick is referring to the fatal police shootings of unarmed black men and countless not guilty verdicts that our nation is simply desensitized to at this point.

The backlash against Kaepernick’s silent protest during the national anthem is reminiscent of the reactions that occur whenever someone tries to speak up about an issue. Instead of considering why Kaepernick has taken this stance, the nation instead fixates upon Kaepernick’s credentials as if he cannot identify a severe social problem, his background as if he cannot speak for a racial group because he does not completely fit the profile, and his jersey sales as if this were a publicity stunt. A legitimate, well-documented issue is yet again cheapened the same way as when “Black” is switched to “All” when the nation identifies which lives do indeed matter.

This instance of free speech, among others, raises the question of which platform we are able to bring forth these issues and have people actually take them seriously.

Should Kaepernick use his celebrity standing to voice his concerns or ought he just stick to the game?

Justin Guerriero: Kaepernick’s recent actions have started debates all around the country. They have  become political now, as well. Kaepernick attributes his decision to take a knee during the national anthem largely to police brutality and namely, the discriminatory and predatory actions of certain police officers against often unarmed black suspects.

This issue has become so rooted in politics, especially headed into this election year. Progressive Democrats (the Bernie Sanders crew, more or less) and the Black Lives Matter movement have both addressed it as a major problem today in America. Now that problem and its recognition has trickled down from the political amphitheaters to the celebrity, athlete and average citizen realms.

So does Kaepernick have a right to do what he’s done, given his platform as an athlete and public figure? Yes. Absolutely. And why in the world should it be otherwise? Musicians have come together repeatedly to advocate social awareness. Take Live Aid in 1985, for example, when many of the major acts of the day came together for a mega show to promote awareness for famine in Ethiopia that claimed countless lives. Actors do the same thing. Leonardo DiCaprio is an ardent promoter of environmental responsibility. He’s extremely vocal about awareness to global warming.

Kaepernick certainly isn’t the first American athlete to protest in such a manner. Jackie Robinson wrote about his personal feelings toward the national anthem in his 1972 autobiography and they weren’t pleasant. Muhammad Ali was an outspoken critic of racism toward people of color. People who raise awareness of perpetual racism and inequality are the most viciously condemned for speaking up, unlike the supporters of other, less controversial issues.

Kaepernick’s protest is also directed at people who think racism is long-gone and that socially, things are all well and good. A lot of people have passed a very harsh judgment on him for what is considered an abomination of an act and dishonoring one’s country. If not this way, then what form of protesting is acceptable? Why should he participate in something that he feels so blatantly disrespected by?

The bottom line is that Kaepernick believes, along with many other people of color, that “the system” is rigged against them. I don’t know what that’s like. As an average Caucasian male I will never have the faintest idea. All Kaepernick is trying to do is to tell the country that there is a major problem within society. If sitting during the national anthem is how he has to articulate that, then I think we should pay attention. There’s a whole lot more to dive into regarding his (in)action, but from an ethical standpoint, I think he has the right to protest silently– as an athlete, a celebrity and most importantly, a citizen.

HW: Absolutely. Commitment to one’s country is also a commitment to better it. A national anthem, as the 49ers recognize, is a celebration. When one feels that their country does not fit the bill for what “The Star Spangled Banner” is celebrating, there ought to be no obligation to participate. The national anthem is not just a chant we do to placate our concerns about very real issues. And while celebrating the good in our country is inspiring, we must also acknowledge where more good can be sought. Kaepernick’s kneel actually shows respect for the liberty he enjoys but also to the liberties that have not been granted to other Americans.

Furthermore, Kaepernick should not be boxed into this unidimensional role. I think in this particular instance, his patriotic duties as a citizen are more important than his position as a celebrity and athlete. It is ironic that we are even discussing his eligibility to speak to this issue because, as mentioned earlier, many use this sort of discussion to divert attention from the issue he raises. Free speech is free speech and if a person has the privilege of such a widely-publicized platform, by all means they should use it. There are bigger issues than if some football player decided to sit during a song — and he did that exactly for those issues!

Justin, you also bring up a point about how you, as a white male, cannot understand Kaepernick’s particular position, but that you are in support of the cause. Apparently, the majority of white people who have weighed in on this issue don’t just not understand, but they also simply don’t care. A recent survey reveals that 69 percent of white people disapprove of Kaepernick’s silent protest. I wonder — is it because these people are so invested in the national anthem, or is it that they’d rather not face serious issues that simply do not affect them? Seems like yet another prime illustration of color-blind racism.

JG: Hayla, if this really is a Coin Toss then that coin must be double-headed because I’m in total agreement with you. I found it interesting that the Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella publicly stated that he’d bench any of his players that sit down for the national anthem. Wow…spoken like a true middle-aged white male who is either oblivious to current social issues or just refuses to acknowledge them. In his mind, and for that matter, the minds of many, probably including a majority of the 69 percent of white people who don’t support Kaepernick’s actions in that poll that you mentioned, there will never be an excuse to publicly criticize one’s country in such a manner. There is no debate about it: The American flag and the national anthem, things that are likely forever going to be handcuffed to a sense of national pride and patriotism, are untouchable.

That’s what’s so infuriating to Kaepernick’s critics. And that’s what in turn, allows allegations of Kaepernick converting to Islam to create even more turbulence to the issue. I love the United States, but as a country, we are in much less of a sound position than many people would like to admit. The ugly truth of the matter is that the United States has never in its history fairly represented the ideas and desires of everyone. It’s hard to believe that we really aren’t that far removed from the Civil Rights Movement. Long story short is that we have quite an uphill battle ahead of us until the shameful discrimination endured by people of color ends.  

If you’re someone who’s enraged by Kaepernick’s actions, I ask you to take into account his intent. Kaepernick doesn’t enjoy what he’s doing. I don’t think anyone enjoys having to take such drastic measures to get a point across. I respect Kaepernick for staying true to his heart and for occupying a position that is much larger than himself.

CUI: Whether or not we’re able to support Kaepernick, the key here is acknowledging that there is in fact a problem at hand, a problem that it is dividing our country (but not our section editors) in a way that should not be existent in the year 2016. Being a patriot does not entail blindly honoring objects such as a flag or a song. In fact, patriotism is defined as “an emotional attachment to a nation which an individual recognizes as their homeland.” Kaepernick is emotionally attached enough to go to extreme measures to ensure that he and people of color are treated fairly and with respect across the board.

Contact CU Independent Head Sports Editor Justin Guerriero at justin.guerriero@colorado.edu and follow him on Twitter @TheHungry_Hippo.

Contact CU Independent Assistant Opinion Editor Hayla Wong at hayla.wong@colorado.edu.

CU Independent

The CU Independent, or CUI for short, is the student news outlet for the University of Colorado at Boulder. We cover news, sports, politics, opinion, arts and entertainment and more. Our mission is to provide news and commentary that's for students and by students — about the things we care about.

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