After Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem, he was immediately criticized for being disrespectful and insubordinate. One of the most damning criticisms is the argument that because Kaepernick is a successful NFL player, his actions are invalid, unacceptable or out of place and by virtue of his position, he is unqualified to raise this issue.
Alex Boone, an offensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings, articulated this sentiment: “You have to show some respect, especially in the position that we are in . . . We’re out here playing a game, making millions of dollars. People are losing their life, and you don’t have the common courtesy to [stand during the national anthem].”
Tomi Lahren, a conservative talk show host, reinforced this position: “I have people overseas who are fighting for your right to sit on a bench and moan about your perceived oppression while making $19 million a year to throw a ball, so show a little respect.”
Benny Johnson of Independent Journal Review wrote an article titled “ Inside Colin Kaepernick’s $3 Million Mansion That He Owns Because He Lives In The Greatest Country In The World,” which implied that Kaepernick’s lavish lifestyle disqualifies him from commenting on systemic issues which plague African Americans.
No person needs credentials to send a meaningful message; Kaepernick need not live a certain lifestyle to make a salient point about the experience of African Americans. These criticisms are essentially distractions from the purpose of Kaepernick’s actions. Kaepernick is the messenger of an important message and the aforementioned critiques are personal statements directed toward Kaepernick rather than arguments against his position.
Rather, it is important for athletes to take stands (or sits) like Kaepernick because their platforms and popularity are instrumental in changing the national narrative about racism in the United States. Furthermore, many of these athletes have been affected by the prevalence of racism in American society but do not explicitly express their views because of the backlash that will follow. The United States is going through growing pains as race continually pushes its way to the forefront of media attention: a topic that is regularly oversimplified, mishandled or outrightly disregarded. It is time for other athletes to follow Kaepernick and set a precedent for what is considered a socially acceptable form of protest.
Kaepernick’s comments are contrasted by those of Cam Newton, who in a recent interview, offered a bland and meaningless statement that captured the American ethos about race: “Under [1⁄8 of an inch of skin], we are the same color. That is the big picture . . . We just gotta [sic] do right by each other no matter what color we are.” Newton was purposefully uncontroversial, and he catered to America’s common view of race. His statement signified the standard at which athletes and other public figures are expected to speak about race so to not stir controversy, embracing a post-racial point of view rather than one that acknowledges racial divisions.
It is, however, understandable why athletes are hesitant to take clear political stances. Popular athletes are attached to brands that control their money and perception. Any inflammatory statement by an athlete could deter sponsors from promoting these athletes.
It is therefore important to recognize the athletes who sacrifice personal success to advance what many people consider to be a pressing matter. Kaepernick, a well-known football star, understood the consequences of his actions. His public image, professional cache and brand will take a hit as he advances the interests of underrepresented voices by stirring a national conversation. Kaepernick is OK with that tradeoff and deserves to be commended thusly. In July, Lebron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade took a less controversial, but similarly important, stance that raised the same issues. These prominent athletes should continue to take these controversial stances.
Other athletes should follow suit because many of them have influential platforms to represent voices which are otherwise unheard. The backlash against Kaepernick signifies that the United States has a considerable distance to cover if race is to be discussed with nuance and openmindedness on a national level. Now is the time for others to join the conversation and push the narrative.