Criminal Justice

Is 49ers' QB Colin Kaepernick Right To Sit During the National Anthem?

Refuses to honor flag of a country he says "oppresses black people and people of color."


Mike Morbeck, Flickr

Colin Kaepernick, who plays quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem at a pre-season game. In case anyone missed his intent, Kaepernick clarified it after the game:

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

Although it encourages players to do so, the NFL doesn't require them to stand during the playing of the anthem.

Kaepernick's protest has drawn a huge amount of online reaction, much of it flatly critical. Fellow football players have been more supportive, though hardly uncritical.

Former football player, Biggest Loser participant, and ESPN analyst Damien Woody tweeted:

Justin Pugh of the New York Giants tweeted:

As the legendary sportswriter and young-adult novelist Robert Lipsyte—he was among the first sports-beat scribes to write about characters such as Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King as agents of social change—told Reason a few years back, sports isn't a respite from all the political, cultural, and economic battles of the everyday world. No, it's a prism through which to view, engage, and debate those very concerns. People who say that sports is not the place to talk about serious issues are trying to live in a fantasy world.

I've never felt comfortable during the playing of the national anthem during professional sporting events, simply because it strikes me as either an empty gesture or a forced ritual. Standing for the national anthem before a hockey or baseball tells us precisely nothing about anyone's patriotism or feelings toward the country, especially when it is forced.

Yet Kaepernick's gesture strikes me as a particularly weak display considering the apparent depth of his feelings on questions of police violence toward racial and ethnic minorities. I share many of his concerns about systemic racism stemming from policies such as the drug war, but his overly broad and condemnatory language strikes me as easy to dismiss, especially given the economic, legal, and culurals perks afforded to professional athletes. Given his slumping career, many people on social media are simply writing him off as a fading malconent. That sort of reaction—how dare you say anything critical of the system that made you rich and famous!—also strikes me as risible.

There's no doubt that athletes and other entertainers take professional risks when they speak out on politically charged topics. As Damien Woody suggests, they have every right to do. Where would we be without figures ranging from Jackie Robinson to Frank Sinatra to Eartha Kitt to Curt Flood to Charlton Heston to Woody Harrelson using their celebrity to raise concerns? Independent of whether we agree with them on any given concern, celebrities are often powerful and eloquent spokespeople for causes that are otherwise ignored by the public. More than a few have paid for being outspoken in lost opportunities, but some also become incredibly effective change agents (certainly Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King were).

If Kaepernick's outrage at disproportionate police violence against blacks and minorities is as strong as it seems, I hope he becomes a more effective and thoughtful advocate for policy change.

What do you think? Is Kaepernick taking a bold stand for equal treatment under the law? Or a spoiled brat? And is America a uniquely awful country whose flag and anthem should not be respected during ceremonial activities? Answer in the comments.

Reason TV recently talked with former cop and state trooper Neill Franklin, who heads up Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). Franklin says there is no question that law enforcement treats minorities and lower-class Americans differently than whites and the well-off. He says that police are being asked to do too many things for too many people and that we need a new model of policing that builds on local community ties. Take a look.