Football Fever and Patriotic Fervor

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sits during the national anthem before an NFL preseason football game in San Diego, September 1, 2016.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the playing of the national anthem before preseason NFL games has football fans—and nonfans—flapping their jaws about something that has nothing to do with punting, passing, or running. Rather, Kaepernick has sparked a debate about the meaning of protest and patriotism in sports.

The playing of the national anthem is a pre-kickoff ritual that goes back decades, usually without notice or comment. In fact, Kaepernick’s silent protest drew little attention until he was asked about it after the third preseason game. According to an ESPN transcript of an interview with Kaepernick, the quarterback explained he was making a personal statement to draw attention to social injustices in America. He said:

People don’t realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust. People aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for freedom, liberty and justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.

Then, he specifically cited police brutality, saying:

There’s a lot of things that need to change. One specifically? Police brutality. There’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. People are being given paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.

As the NFL kicks off its regular season this weekend, an off-field debate dominates the game. True to our polarized national culture, folks feel compelled to take sides, often in predictably racial and political terms. And because it involves sports, the behaviors range from outrageous consumerism—Kaepernick’s #7 jersey is now the NFL’s top seller—to outrageous demonstrations—crazed fans across the country are burning his jersey in protest of his protest.

Meanwhile, a handful of supportive athletes are showing solidarity. U.S. women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe knelt during the playing of the national anthem before her team, the Seattle Reign FC, tied the Chicago Red Stars in a Sunday night game. “Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” Rapinoe told reporters after the game. “It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it.”

San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid joined Kaepernick in his symbolic protest at a game last week, kneeling as the anthem was played. And in another game, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane sat as the anthem played before his team faced the Oakland Raiders.

That should have been the end of this gridiron grapple. But no, there’s more.

President Barack Obama had to be dragged into this mess because, well, people are talking about it. During a news conference last week at the G-20 economic summit in China, a reporter asked President Obama what he thought of the issue, which prompted the president to say that Kaepernick was only exercising his freedom of speech. “I don’t doubt his sincerity,” Obama said. “I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about. And if nothing else, what he’s done is he’s generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.”

True enough, Mr. President. But something still remains unsaid: Criticism of Kaepernick is misguided patriotism. Moreover, this criticism is unpatriotic because people who love America have the right and obligation to criticize in order to make our union more perfect.

Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color line in 1947 and became a sports hero to generations, made the same point as Kaepernick. Writing in his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Robinson compared his feelings toward America before his first World Series game in the Brooklyn Dodgers uniform and two decades later:

There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.

What’s more, there’s an unseemly quality to the manic flag waving, fighter jet overflies, and militaristic symbolism that has become embedded in sports fandom. In a perceptive 2009 essay in Slate, Michael Oriard detailed how marketing, not love of country, motivated college and professional football executives to wrap themselves in Old Glory and the military. As he accurately notes:

Over the years, Americans have projected all kinds of beliefs and desires onto football; the game has meant to us pretty much whatever we have needed it to mean at the time. … With his late ‘60s Super Bowls, [then-NFL Commissioner] Pete Rozelle aligned the NFL with one side of a political and generational divide. With the tremendous increases in TV revenues since the 1990s, today’s NFL cannot afford to offend half of its potential audience in order to please the other half. Patriotic displays will continue…

But what kind of patriotism is the NFL selling? And to whom is it selling it?

Black Americans such as Kaepernick and Robinson have as valid a claim on this nation and its symbols as anyone, including full-time members of the U.S. armed forces or weekend football warriors. The sacrifices of the former insure freedom of speech in this country for the latter to fully exercise them. That’s what America ought to cheer on Sundays and every day that follows.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.