One of the college-level courses I teach, “Sports & Culture,” uses the lens of competitive athletics to analyze and discuss a variety of topics. In all the years of this class, no other issue has sparked as much debate as Colin Kaepernick’s anthem kneel during the 2016-2017 season (he was San Francisco 49ers' quarterback at the time). In many ways, this has also been the case both in and around the NFL, as the discussion long ago departed the realm of sports talk and became a national story. At a March rally in Louisville, Kentucky, Donald Trump took credit for Kaepernick’s unemployment, telling the crowd that NFL owners would not sign him because they were scared of getting a “nasty tweet."
As spring turned into summer, the question of whether or not Kaepernick would be signed by a team remained open. Clearly, there were a number of teams that were never going to sign him under any circumstances—-the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, Los Angeles Rams, Houston Texans, and the Washington Racial Slurs. The owners of each of those teams contributed significant amounts of money to the Trump campaign and inauguration. Even the Seahawks, who play in "liberal" Seattle, settled on a clearly inferior option to play backup QB instead of Kaepernick.
Although the inevitability of injury may still land him on a roster, the message by the National Football League to its players, 70 percent of whom are black, appeared to be that of all the violent and illegal shit owners are willing to overlook, this would be the behavior not tolerated. Indeed, a sign at the pro-Kaepernick rally on August 23 outside National Football League headquarters in New York City suggested that the NFL actually stands for: “Negroes, Fall in Line!”
Seahawks Pro-Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett, who sat during the anthem before a recent preseason game, appeared on ESPN and upped the ante by calling on white players to spend some of that cultural capital and get involved. Days later, Philadelphia Eagles veteran defensive end Chris Long became the first, putting his arm around teammate Malcolm Jenkins as Jenkins raised his fist during the version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which presumably was performed minus the third verse that discusses terrorizing slaves. Last week a group of 10 Cleveland Browns, including 2 white players, knelt before a game. The athletic era and mindsets of black athletes like OJ Simpson (“I’m not black, I’m OJ”) and Michael Jordan (“Republicans buy shoes too”), who purposefully avoided any public discussions of race or other controversial issues in the interest of their own image and marketability seems to have passed (in some sports anyway). While LeBron James posed for a photo with his Miami Heat teammates in hoodies following the shooting of Trayvon Martin and wore an “I Cant Breathe” T-shirt after the death of Eric Garner, there has been little to no discussion of anthem protests in hockey, for obvious reasons, or baseball. African Americans represent less than 10 percent while white Americans make up over 60 percent of players in Major League Baseball—as such it is difficult to imagine these types of protests in a sport full of unwritten rules and traditions that frowns on individual expression and polices itself with 95 mile-per-hour fastballs aimed at heads.
The participation of white athletes has a chance to make an important difference in the public perception of these protests. It reminds me of how, during talks where the question comes up, I often tell audiences that when it comes to supporting a simple statement like Black Lives Matter, white voices definitely matter. As for Kaepernick, he has stated that he will stand for the anthem moving forward if he is signed. Unfortunately, it seems the vast majority of people who weigh in on the situation continue to splash around the kiddie pool by arguing about Kaepernick’s actions, instead of exploring the deep water, which is his cause.