Would Colin Kaepernick have an National Football League job if he were apolitical?
The answer, in a word, is yes.
The free agent is 29 years old, in his physical prime, and a six-year-veteran pro quarterback, most of it as a starter. In his first full NFL season (2012) he led his team, the San Francisco 49ers, to the Super Bowl, coming up just short of winning it. The next season the team went 12-4 in the regular season and made it to the conference final. He’s as good a runner as a passer (better, probably), and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. By all accounts he’s been a good and diligent teammate.
Yeah, his last couple of seasons weren’t great, but he battled injuries and the Niners were in general decline during their course. And we’re talking about a roster spot here—not necessarily a starting job—and backup NFL QBs make big money walking the sidelines wearing baseball caps and holding clipboards on game days. He’s certainly more talented than most of the men slated to do that.
By cultural definition Kaepernick is black, although his birth mother was white and he carries the name of the adoptive white family that raised him. He sports a big afro, which harks back to the days when that was the hairstyle of choice of black militants and still sets some teeth on edge. So, too, did his chosen method of protest, which was to sit or kneel during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the national anthem, before his team’s games.
His specific issue was the predilection of some policemen to shoot first and ask questions later when dealing with black suspects. A lot of people, whites as well as blacks, also don’t like that, but in messin’ with the anthem he not only changed the subject but also fuzzed his point, which was unfortunate, I think. Clarity is a virtue in such matters.
If nothing else his plight highlights the unique—and odd—relationship between sports and patriotism in this land. Through the repetition of decades, American sporting events invariably are prefaced by the singing of the anthem, something that obtains in no other kinds of entertainment for which Americans gather. There is no “why” to this custom— it just is—and the lack of sense behind it only increases its force.
If you’d ask around you’d probably be told that the anthem is mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, but it ain’t. Indeed, the USA did without an official anthem until 1931, when Congress got around to naming the lyrics the Maryland lawyer Francis Scott Key wrote in 1814 to the tune of an old British drinking song after he’d witnessed the siege of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. Before that the tunes “Hail, Columbia” and “America The Beautiful” often sufficed on occasions when patriotic music was desired. Some people still prefer “America The Beautiful” as an anthem choice; among other things it’s a lot easier to sing than “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Knowing a good thing when they see it, American sports organizations have glommed on to patriotic themes and play them for all they’re worth. Giant flag displays mark the pregame ceremonies of many events and fly-overs by Air Force jets are a frequent touch. After 9/11 some Major League Baseball teams began playing the Irving Berlin song “God Bless America” before the seventh-inning stretch. People are asked to rise and remove their hats while it is played, even though the piece lacks any official status.
As a sports writer I went to one event (can’t remember which) at which the Lee Greenwood song “God Bless the USA,” also known as the redneck anthem, led things off. The crowd rose for it. That “at least I know I’m free” line grabs ‘em every time, huh?
Federal law mentions the anthem and prescribes a protocol for behavior when it’s played --people should stand, face the flag and put their right hands over their hearts, and men (but not women) should remove their hats—but compliance always is spotty. No penalties are provided for violations, which is a good thing because enforcement would be impossible. It’s not clear whether only people in the stands are supposed to follow the code or folks anywhere on a stadium’s grounds. I’ve seen amusing sights in men’s rooms when the anthem is played.
There’s also no set way to present the anthem. Only opera singers and military bands can be relied upon to play it straight; otherwise, freelance vocal or instrumental shtick is the rule. A good rule of thumb for the correctness of anthem vocal renditions is the number of syllables given to the word “banner.” If it’s four (ba-aa-ner-er) you’re in trouble.
In such a milieu it should be hard to define which anthem violations are worthy of censure, so Kaepernick’s punishment seems unusual at best. During his last-season actions he was joined by teammates from time to time, and none of them were singled out for special condemnation. During the current preseason several individual players (Eric Reid, Marshawn Lynch and Michael Bennett, among them) have mirrored Kaepernick’s actions, and a dozen Cleveland Browns staged a group protest, but as far as I know they’re all still employed.
The day when the dictum “shut up and play” applied to jocks and other entertainers clearly has passed; we’re in a hyper-partisan era when political expression seems more like a duty than a luxury. A few weeks ago President Trump and wife said they wouldn’t be attending the annual Kennedy Center tribute to outstanding performing artists after it had become clear that no one else would show up if they did. That’s about as pointed as it gets.
The NFL employs a variety of miscreants whose offenses make Kaepernick’s seem tame. Any team that hires him can expect some home-fan bounceback, but if the past is any guide it’ll disappear with his first touchdown pass. We fans are funny that way.