Kaepernick’s anthem protest is perfect way to highlight America’s race problem

With a gesture that almost went unnoticed, the 49ers player ignited a debate about racial inequality, police brutality and the meaning of the American flag

The protest overwhelming the start of the NFL season began not with a shout or raised fist but an act so passive it was all but invisible to the thousands who were there. On the night of 26 August, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem before the teams pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers. His defiance was nearly impossible to discern as he sat surrounded by Gatorade containers on the teams bench. It might have been missed altogether had a reporter from the NFL Network not noticed and asked him about 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 the NFL Network that night. 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.

A firestorm ensued, igniting a national debate about racial inequality, police brutality and the meaning of the American flag. Kaepernick, a fading football star who had never seemed political, instantly became a nationally polarizing figure, much as Muhammad Ali had been when he refused to fight in the Vietnam war.

While some fans torched Kaepernicks jersey, thousands more flocked to buy it his shirt is currently the top seller on the NFLs website. As many labeled him a traitor, others have rushed to his side. This week, Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson, an African American historian, called his protest a thoughtful reflection on how best to highlight the plague of injustice, and the need, finally, to hold our nation accountable for black death in the streets. Three players, 49ers team-mate Eric Reid, Denver Bronco Brandon Marshall and Seattle Seahawk Jeremy Lane, have joined Kaeperkick in refusing to stand for the anthem, along with womens soccer player Megan Rapinoe.

In many ways, Kaepernick has chosen the perfect forum for drawing attention to Americas problems with racial inequality. No major American professional league drapes itself in overwrought patriotism more than the NFL, and no other league the NBA aside is as dominated by African American athletes.

The national anthem is a big event before games, with honor guards and salutes to soldiers. Giant American flags often cover the entire field and military jets buzz the stadium, timing their pass to match the anthems final words. In some cities, players clutch American flags as they lead their team-mates to the field. Even in supporting Kaepernicks right to protest, the other day NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was quick to add: We believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL.

Charged rhetoric has been spilling from the presidential campaign, and the flag is becoming a hammer that some white people have used against African Americans in the US. At last months Olympics, black gymnast Gabby Douglas was besieged with criticism for not putting her hand on her heart as the anthem played during a gold medal ceremony. But while Douglas was standing at attention to the flag, unaware that her action could be perceived as a slight, Kaepernick is intentionally sitting to challenge the kind of racism that unfairly judged Douglas.

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Gymnast Gabby Douglas was besieged with criticism for not putting her hand on her heart as the anthem played during a gold medal ceremony. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

Kaepernicks actions have not come in a vacuum. The past two years in the US have seen a surge in protests highlighting racial inequality since the shooting of a black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The protests, most notably by the Black Lives Matter movement, have helped push the conversation about race into the national consciousness.

This is something that has to be said, it has to be brought to the forefront of everybodys attention, and when thats done I think people can realize what the situation [is] and then really effect change, Kaepernick said.

Kaepernick was born to a white mother and black father in Milwaukee, and was later adopted by a white family who raised him in suburban Wisconsin and California.

He is no longer the prominent player he was when he shot to stardom in 2012. Back then, he led the 49ers to within five yards of winning Super Bowl XLVII, but his play quickly tumbled as teams adjusted to his running and passing style. Last season he lost the starting quarterback job, further distancing him from team-mates to whom he had never seemed very close.

He has, however, found a voice as an activist. In the past few months, he has grown out his hair, filled his Twitter feed with poignant comments on social issues, and wears a Malcolm X baseball cap. He is smiling more than he ever did in the past. When he addressed the media a few days after the Green Bay game, he didnt mumble a few words as he used to in press conferences but instead spoke thoughtfully for 20 minutes. He said he wanted to start a conversation about race. He said he had already done so with his team-mates and wanted people to do the same nationally.

Im going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed, Kaepernick said at the time. To me this is something that has to change. When theres significant change and I feel like that flag represents what its supposed to represent: this country is representing people the way its supposed to, Ill stand.

In the ensuing days people have tried to determine Kaepernicks motives. As many players, like the New York Giants Justin Pugh, criticize his stand as a slap against the military, some push the story that he has been influenced by his girlfriend Nessa Djab, a radio host who is Muslim, alleging that he too is converting a rumor he squashed this week. I think that comes along with peoples fear of this protest, as well as Islamophobia in this country, he said before taking a swipe at Donald Trump. People are terrified of them to the point where Trump wants to ban all Muslims from coming here, which is ridiculous.

Now that Kaepernick has gotten the nations attention, the next question is how effective will his protest be? I think that we are talking about (the anthem) but we arent talking about the core issue he is raising. hes raising issues about racism and history, says Katheryn Russell-Brown, a law professor at the University of Florida. We arent comfortable talking about these things across racial lines. People are talking about them but they are doing so with people of their own race.

Unlike Ali, who was ostracized from boxing for what would have been his prime years, Kaepernick will be allowed to continue his protest. Neither the 49ers nor the league will punish him. They probably understand that his is not a solitary voice, something Kaepernick alluded to this week when he said other players wanted to join him but are nervous about the consequences. The Seahawks, for instance, have discussed joining Kaepernick and their team-mate Lane in sitting for the anthem this weekend. If they do, their act will be obvious to everyone watching, unlike the initial, silent protest that has started a movement.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/sep/09/colin-kaepernick-national-anthem-protest-nfl-race-issues