This article isn’t my standard piece breaking down film or examining the playbook of the 49ers. Rather, I wanted to take to the time discuss the controversy surrounding quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Before I begin on such a controversial topic, I must preface my comments by explaining my background.
I served 10 years in the United States Navy and deployed three times to the Middle East in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. I have friends in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps who have lost their lives in defense of this nation. And I feel I am in a unique position to comment on this controversy.
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My words are mine alone. And I am not speaking for Niner Noise or FanSided.
On Friday evening, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made his preseason debut against the Green Bay Packers. It was apparent that he had not played a game snap since last November. 49ers Twitter would surely be abuzz the next day about his performance. People were certainly busy talking about Kaepernick. But it was not because of his performance.
Instead, the internet was abuzz with talk about what he decided to do before the game even started: he decided to sit during the national anthem.
He offered up his reasoning in an interview with NFL media reporter Steve Wyche:
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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."
The response was predictable.
Most people criticized the quarterback and wondered why he would say such things, given that he has benefited from the freedoms we share as Americans.
Predictably, the Bay Area media did not take kindly to his protest. Lowell Cohn pontificated that:
"It’s hypocritical to dump on a society that made you a prince, especially when you happily accepted that. It’s strange to fight for the downtrodden while you live like that prince. Kaepernick has not thought out the obvious contradictions in his position."
And Fox Sports’ Clay Travis was nothing short of repugnant:
"Put simply, Colin Kaepernick is a f**king idiot."
I am not going to get into the specifics of the content of what Kaepernick said. Those of you who follow me on Twitter (if you don’t, you should) know where I sit, politically. Quite frankly, it’s not the message itself that angered people. If it was, why have we let an entire political party get away with campaigning on the very idea that America sucks?
Politics aside, what I want to address is this idea what he did to protest was disrespectful.
My phone blew up all weekend with friends and family who felt compelled to throw in their two cents on the issue and also to ask me what I, as a veteran, thought about it.
“Don’t you think it’s disrespectful?” was the most common question I got bombarded with.
No, I don’t. And here’s why.
Broadly, our constitutional right to free speech cannot be abridged by the government. And that means that people are free to criticize whomever, whenever they want.
Fans are free to do and say what they want about Kaepernick’s comments and protest. We can agree on that much.
However, the exercise of those rights is not contingent upon what others feel is disrespectful or inappropriate. And Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali certainly were not docile when expressing their rights at time when doing so could possibly get you killed.
And they protested in sometimes unconventional ways.
Those rights are believed to be older than our country itself and date at least back to 1215 when King John of England agreed to the charter of Magna Carta.
So how people choose to exercise those rights is fine by me, no matter the content of their message.
That means freedom of speech for the ideas we hate. If I saw someone sitting for the anthem or not partaking in the customs and traditions we typically all take part in, I would not say a word. It’s not my, or anyone else’s, business how someone chooses to express themselves within the bounds of what’s legal.
Though there is US code on how to properly respect the flag and the national anthem, those laws do not carry with it any penalty that would be upheld by an court in the land.
The Supreme Court in Texas v. Johnson (the popular flag burning case) stated:
"Recognizing that the right to differ is the centerpiece of our First Amendment freedoms, a government cannot mandate by fiat a feeling of unity in its citizens. Therefore that very same government cannot carve out a symbol of unity and prescribe a set of approved messages to be associated with that symbol."
Also, the 19th century English Philosopher John Stuart Mill developed the “harm principle” which states, “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”
Kaepernick’s actions, while causing some emotional distress for the “PC bros” like Clay Travis in the media and online, did not actually do anything to physically harm the lives of those around him.
There was a point in my life prior to my military service when Kaepernick’s actions would infuriate me. And I probably would’ve joined in the chorus denouncing him. But I was fortunate enough to travel the world and see how others live, and I took that opportunity to learn about the repressive regimes of the countries and organizations we are (and were) at war with.
In the clamor and hysteria of his actions this weekend, people would do well to realize that the very actions Kaepernick expressed in protesting our national symbols could get you killed in places like the Islamic State or other overtly oppressive regimes in the Middle East.
Still, they have a right to criticize him. And that’s what sets us apart from our enemies.
Kaepernick knows very well the consequences of his actions. But I think it’s rather unfortunate his overall message is obscured by his actions. And for that I do not fully agree with everything he did, if only because no one is talking about the message.
Professional athletes are in a unique position due to their standing in society that allows them to cast a greater net. They should use it for the better.
But fans only want their pro athletes to entertain them, not actually act like human beings with feelings and emotions.
Part of the reason we are not talking about the message is because the topic is not a politically correct topic to discuss among a large percentage of the population who wish to whitewash our society’s problems away. It’s unfortunate that we’re having a conversation about what is and is not the patriotic, right thing to do at a sporting event.
I certainly don’t speak for all service members, especially those who have fought and died for this country. But I can say unequivocally that exercising our rights and liberties is the most respectful thing an individual can do to show their support for our military, this country’s traditions, and our national symbols.
Asking anyone do to do otherwise is anathema to the very ideas my brothers and sisters defend every day across the world.
All statistics, records and accolades courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise indicated.