© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Keith Strudler: The Racial Politics Of Sitting Down

This may seem odd, but I’ve always wanted the US to change our national anthem to God Bless America. It’s not that I’ve got any desire to place any god even more in the center of our national debate, nor do I have any particular distain for the Star Spangled Banner, even if it is a bit hawkish for my taste. It’s just that I think God Bless America is a much better song. It’s like comparing Midnight Train to Georgia to the Humpty Dance. They both have their place, but one’s just better.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has some opinions about the national anthem as well. Or at least about its observance. Kaepernick did something that’s not easy to do. He made people who don’t watch sports care deeply about NFL pre-season football, which is the equivalent of caring about rain because you like eating apples. As pretty much everyone knows by now, Kaepernick did not stand for the anthem in last week’s preseason game against Green Bay, which was not the first time he’s refrained this preseason. After much conjecture, and considerable vitriol from swaths of the American public, Kaepernick said he did so in protest of, as he said, “a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” This spared Kaepernick some of the pubic angst that assumed this came in protest of our American military, which it didn’t. It hasn’t spared him from all the people who think he’s being disrespectful to our nation, and by inference all the opportunities it’s given Kaepernick to earn a healthy salary playing sports. That includes presidential candidate Donald Trump, who suggested he find a country that works better for him. In other words, a thinly veiled commentary that black Americans have it pretty good in the US. And if I might analyze a step further, how dare they complain. Such is a more insidious undercurrent of some of the public outcry – not simply that the anthem infers steadfast devotion, or that NFL athletes serve as national role models, but rather that racial injustice is something of a myth. Or at the very least, it’s certainly not the concern of someone like Colin Kaepernick, whose economic realities exceed most of our imaginations.

All of which means there’s a lot to unravel here, because the outrage of one critic might be completely different than that of someone else. The same might be said of those supporting Kaepernick’s statement, a diverse lot that might include libertarians, civil rights activists, labor unions, and everything in-between. So the question isn’t simply whether you agree with Colin Kaepernick’s seated protest. The question, I suppose, is “why?”.

In that vein, perhaps the strangest critique came from former NFL safety and current NFL broadcaster Rodney Harrison, who criticized Kaepernick for not being black. For the record, Kaepernick’s biological mother is white, his biological father black, and he was adopted at birth and raised by a white family. And this fact is very well known, and certainly should be by anyone who covers the sport. Not to mention the clear problem with discounting someone’s experience or voice because they aren’t black enough, as Harrison seemed to imply. It’s a misguided rhetoric that none-the-less highlights the racial divide in the US.

Which leads me to my number one take-away from this seated statement. Colin Kaepernick lives in a space that is regularly and historically viewed, and some might say regulated, through the prism of race. Kaepernick has always been regarded, both by fans and likely employers, as an African-American quarterback, which comes with a long history of assumptions and predispositions. Certainly, it’s not as laden a descriptor as it was years ago, when it was downright prohibited, at least by all practical measures. Kaepernick has assuredly played for far more white coaches, administrators, and owners than persons of color, in a stadium where the vast majority of executive seats were occupied by wealthy white fans. Yet his teammates, particularly those at specified positions, were most likely black. That’s the reality of American professional football, as it is with basketball. Colin Kaepernick’s world, while in many ways functionally racially integrated, still presents all sorts of racial divides and roadblocks, although admittedly none as steep as those publicized by the Black Lives Matter movement, where skin color can be a matter of life and death, not simply of employment.

But that awareness is just one reason we shouldn’t be surprised by Kaepernick’s conviction. It’s not simply because he’s black, contrary to Rodney Harrison’s assertion. It’s that he’s keenly aware of that fact and what it can mean in his world. So it’s only natural he might use his lofty platform to protest what it might mean outside of that.

Kaepernick’s stance, whether you like it or not, is neither surprising nor odd. I’d argue it’s appropriate, even though I understand some counterclaims, at least those not driven by hate. Now changing the anthem itself, as I’d like, might be an even tougher thing for America to accept.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Related Content