Can’t Stand No More


Here’s the funny thing about political expression: Everybody’s totally, utterly, completely, 100 percent in support.

Until, you know, the actual details get in the way.

As an example, look no further than the recent words of Bill Plaschke, written as part of an eminently misguided, utterly confusing attempt to scold Gabby Douglas for failing to show proper posture during a medal ceremony that, most would think, she’d earned the right to absorb however she chose. Nevertheless, Plaschke didn’t much care for Douglas’ display, explaining he would’ve had far less of a problem had it actually meant something.

"“If Douglas was actually protesting something, like the legendary John Carlos and Tommie Smith with the raised gloved fist in 1968, that would have been a worthy explanation. But she did not acknowledge that….Use the podium to thank, to honor, to protest. Use your shining moment for its power, it message, its memories. Use it to affect thought, debate, and even change.”"

Contained though it may have been in such a shortsighted column, the sentiment was nonetheless quite interesting. Just months after saying farewell to Muhammad Ali, someone who stood up as righteously — and suffered as much for it — as any black athlete ever, here was Plaschke, one of the country’s most prominent columnists, not simply tolerating political activism in sports, but advocating it. In so doing, he was tacitly asking the men and women who make their livings playing games to stand up for something more important, more meaningful, more indelible.

And wouldn’t you know, someone seems to have taken heed.

Ever since it drew widespread attention during the San Francisco 49ers’ third preseason game, reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s national-anthem protest has, generally speaking, fit into a certain template. Perhaps nowhere was this better demonstrated than by a pair of tweets from Peter King, one of the biggest names in NFL reporting.

It’s a simple little dichotomy, into which we shoehorn Kaepernick — shoehorn any political protest, really. There’s the right to make a public stand. Then, naturally, there’s the right-ness of it. Chances are, you’ve seen some version of this breakdown over the past few days.

“Of course I support Kaepernick’s free speech…”

“… I obviously don’t agree with it.”

“… I wish he’d chosen another venue.”

“… I don’t understand the timing.”

“… I just happen to think he’s wrong.”

If the construction seems familiar, even cliche, there’s a reason for that. It’s because supporting political expression is easy when it’s in the abstract. Indeed, it’s the bare minimum we expect from anyone looking for a “respectable” place in our dialog. Constitutionalists as we all claim to be, we support the sanctity of the First Amendment. Of course we recognize, and protect, an athlete’s right to be heard. Of course we celebrate the virtue and nobility of Ali, Jackie Robinson, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos — of a whole host of athletes whose grievances were more thoughtful, more virtuous, more considered, more earned than Kaepernick’s ill-considered grandstanding.

“Of course I support Colin Kaepernick’s right to free speech… just as I have the right to call him a fool.”

We choose this tactic, I imagine, because it’s easier. Because it requires far less introspection to reflexively dismiss Kaepernick’s arguments than it does to engage them. Because the reality we have to wrestle with — and one that damn well should be uncomfortable for every American, regardless of race, creed, or background — is that while our coverage and our conversation may frame the quarterback’s protest as “controversial”, there’s very little in his justification for it that actually fits that definition.

America really is “a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” It was true when the ships tore men and women from their homeland to build a nation on the backs of slave labor; it was true when Jim Crow codified a lesser America for those deemed inferior; and it’s true today — and one that damn well should be uncomfortable for every American, regardless of their race, their creed, or background — however different the extent. America’s racism shifts, adapts, and evolves, but it is very much present. To deny as much is the sort of folly few would dare attempt.

Better, instead, to simply ignore the message.

Police brutality is indeed an open wound upon our nation. A human being unable to welcome another day because of some noxious cocktail of fear, misunderstanding, poor training, systemic racism — this isn’t “the cost of doing business.” And it’s our own cowardly acquiescence to this reality that’s shameful; not the attempt to call attention to it.

So yes, there is undeniable merit in what San Francisco’s quarterback has to say, and plenty that is worth hearing. But to make that argument seems almost beside the point. The fact of the matter is, there’s no-one Kaepernick needs to convince. Lost completely in all the rabble, all the hand-wringing, all the takes upon takes, is this: A protest is, by its very definition, personal in nature. For all the hot air we might devote to whether Kaepernick’s protest is good or decent or right, all that truly matters is it’s right for Colin Kaepernick.

For some, all the patriotic pageantry of our country’s sports culture is sacred — not to be ignored, trivialized, or trifled with under any circumstances. For the numerous coaches, players, and pundits who’ve made their feelings known, the anthem stands as a placeholder for the military, and is thus forever worthy of certain ceremony. For a great many more, the flag represents the best ideals of a flawed-but-still striving nation. As such, rising to recognize it is in no way turning a blind eye to America’s myriad injustices, but rather a kind of solemn promise to uphold our individual duty to correct them.

But just as we would never dream of telling anyone to remain seated, so too is it absurd to demand that Kaepernick stand up and pay forced tribute to a flag and to a country that, in his mind, is derelict in its duty. For Colin Kaepernick, what’s right with America, right now, is significantly overshadowed by the ills. As lives continue to be lost with no rhyme or reason; as our nation reaches preposterous levels of inequality; as we fail time and time again to honor our duty as our brother’s keeper — can any of us, honestly, in good faith, tell him he’s wrong?

ST. LOUIS, MO – NOVEMBER 1: Colin Kaepernick
ST. LOUIS, MO – NOVEMBER 1: Colin Kaepernick /

Colin Kaepernick’s stance on our national anthem — on our country — may not be your truth. But given all the scorn, judgement, and reprisals he’s faced, it’s sure as hell his. In a sense, there’s really no better testament to the power of his statement than the lengths we’re willing to go to avoid hearing it. Because from the moment Kaepernick’s message first became clear, far too many among us seemed far too willing to bury it under a list of caveats and #wellactuallys.

They ask, more than a little condescendingly, if Kaepernick has put his money where his mouth is. Whether he’s done enough in his community to “earn” the right to speak out, as though free expression somehow has an entry barrier. They claim, ridiculously, that Kaepernick’s wealth, success, and personal good fortune make him somehow incapable of bringing attention to the plight of others. And perhaps most gallingly, they presume to tell us that what Kaepernick claims is a strongly felt, deeply considered stand on one of the defining issues of our time is, in reality, just an attempt to distract from his struggles on the football field.

It’s nonsense, of course — the whole lot of it. But it does serve a purpose: to distract; to deflect; to put the attention anywhere but on the uncomfortable truths Kaepernick seeks to foreground. As Bomani Jones wrote so eloquently at The Undefeated:

"“The easy question to ask is whether one agrees with Kaepernick’s manner of protest — thus allowing respondents to ignore the substance of his thoughtful, measured critiques. The most disingenuous answers tend to come from those who defend his right to ignore the national anthem while making sure the world knows there were better ways for him to make his point, while, of course, stopping short of addressing the point itself.”"

The easy question to ask is whether one agrees with Kaepernick’s manner of protest, precisely because it allows respondents to ignore the underlying substance. The idea being that one  can defend his right to protest, while damn making sure the world knows there were better ways for him to go about it, all while falling well short of addressing the whys of the matter.

That is, to put it plainly, where many of us have chosen to stand, while Colin Kaepernick continues to sit. We’re fine with the protest; we just can’t really handle the point. Not when it’s so blunt and painful, a mirror held up to the atrocities of our society. For most of us, life is a series of resignations; of self-compromises; of looking the other way or staring silently at a flag where the blood-red stripes always just outnumber the bars of peaceful white.

Colin Kaepernick’s had enough of that. Silence doesn’t suit him, and it’s high time we listen to what he has to say.