Dave Schilling: As Colin Kaepernick took the field for his first game since his anthem protest created a media maelstrom, a nation continues to grapple with the implications
Ive almost slipped in vomit twice since Ive been here. The usual suspects have hurled their insults at each other from across the street. Ignore the chatter and this is just a football game a preseason football game, at that. Colin Kaepernick, the embattled San Francisco 49ers quarterback, has come to San Diego to play the Chargers above all else. His silent protest against racially motivated police brutality and the struggles of the average African-American in this country sitting for the pre-game singing of the national anthem rather than standing is only part of the narrative. Football life goes on. A game must be played while the rest of us debate what it means.
The irony of Kaepernicks first game since his protest became a national talking point being the 28th annual Military Appreciation Night in a city that happily plays host to all manner of armed forces facilities is lost on no one. This is a conservative town, not one to take lightly the notion that American has anything to learn from a millionaire black athlete. According to the 2010 United States Census, San Diego County is 64% white and under a full percent black. Barack Obama was the only the second Democratic presidential candidate to win the county since World War II.
Kaepernick is not alone today. Hes joined in protest by team-mate Eric Reid and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane, who is playing in Oakland. Still, Kaepernicks entrance is booed. His first snap under center is booed. And his second. And his third. In fact, every time he steps on the field, the crowd explodes in unvarnished disgust. Were treated to parachute teams carrying POW flags, fireworks displays, misty-eyed tributes, and a black Navy man, petty officer Steven Powell, singing the Star-Spangled Banner and God Bless America. The 49ers march down the field and score on their first drive 16 plays, 85 yards in eight minutes and 11 seconds. Kaepernick is unfazed, which only gives the Charger faithful more to jeer.
The second half begins and all goes back to normal. The haze of controversy lifts and behind it is preseason football contested by two teams that are unlikely to make the playoffs. In the press box, unlike the rest of the stadium, no one is drunk enough to pretend theyre having fun. There are no boos for the quarterbacks who take over for Kaepernick in the second half, Jeff Driskel and Christian Ponder. The 49ers claw their way back from a deficit to win a meaningless tune-up contest. Its sports again. Nothing more, nothing less.
Two black Chargers fans from San Diego Andrea and Porsche wait for a ride home. I honestly dont know that much about it, Porsche says when I ask her about the controversy. You didnt hear the boos, I shoot back. We didnt hear it from where we were sitting, Andrea responds, reminding me of the race and class disparity that is so pronounced at sporting events. But people were mad. They was mad at Jesus Christ, Porsche says. When I finally ask her about the problems behind Kaepernicks protest, Porsche sighs and whispers, Im just tired. I dont blame her.
At the hotel, two older white people emerge from a taxi: Joe, 56, a UPS delivery driver from Los Angeles Countys South Bay region and his mother Sandy, 73 both die-hard 49ers fans relishing their teams comeback victory and eager for a celebratory drink. Unfortunately, Courtney, our bartender tells us the hotel bar is closed. After a bit of good-natured pestering, she agrees to sell all of us one drink so we can discuss the heady topic of race in America while slightly intoxicated.
Joe is a prototypical working class American male stout, thick, jovial, moralistic, but with a puckish curiosity about how the other half lives. I was hurt, he says when I enquire about his feelings toward his teams quarterback. I thought he was disrespectful to the nation. I understand his thoughts and beliefs about whats going on in this country, but I didnt exactly agree with the way he went about it.
Tonight, instead of sitting during the anthem, Kaepernick took a knee. Thats better than sitting on your ass. Im OK with taking a knee. Miraculously, Joe says he came to see the protest in a different light thanks to a lengthy conversation with Wesley, the hotel maintenance man who fixed his air conditioning. I agree to an extent the racial profiling that goes on in this country. I get it, he says. His mother isnt quite so pliable.
Me personally, I dont like the guy, Kaepernick. I call him another name, but I wont tell you because you cant print it, she says. But its the internet, we can say almost anything. I call him Cold Pecker. Ive always called him Cold Pecker and I always will. I mishear her. Cole Pecker? Is this a play on Daunte Culpepper? Because hes like a cold penis? He just seemed to have an attitude. I thought he didnt show well.
Quarterbacks are known for attitude, for swagger, and for outsized personalities, arent they? The way he walked, the way he talked, the way he acted, wasnt a Joe Namath, he wasnt a Joe Montana, she responds. Well, Joe Namath was pretty outspoken. In a different way. He was fun. This guy doesnt seem to have a personality about him. Hes not personable.
Such is the conundrum of the black athlete in America do it the way we tell you or dont do it at all. Mom is 73. Moms old-fashioned. I believe in the flag, I believe in saluting the flag. Honoring your parents and your elders and being nice to people, Sandy continues. I cant help but mention Muhammad Ali, a vocal black athlete who went so far as to refuse to serve in the military because of his beliefs. Not the same, she says. He was a showman. And the way he did it, he did it with a degree of class. He was funny. African-Americans can chase respectability, but the bar keeps moving. Even a silent, peaceful protest the absence of action can elicit disgust.
He shows up on our TV screen, giving a press conference, trying to find that line of respectability and class. Hes told reporters after Thursdays game that hes donating $1m of his salary to organizations that help communities. He means no harm toward the military. Taking a knee is a compromise. I like Joe and Sandy they mean well and they want to reach out to black folks but they have their moments too. If you stereotype people, and I sometimes do that, but he looks like a terrorist to me. Im sorry, but he does. Ill probably end up getting sued. I respond: Fortunately for you, in this country, you can say that. Freedom of speech.
My wife was telling me whats going on in Baltimore. I havent seen any of that, Joe says as Wesley, the maintenance man shows up. I almost want to laugh, because theres something of the clich Magical Negro archetype from the movies in him. Its as though he materialized out of someones imagination to explain racism to these white people. Like Joe, hes a rugged working man with nary a hint of pretension, but an active mind.
I dont even think he thought about it, Wesley says to me about Kaepernick. Its just something that he did, because I dont think he was prepared for it. Im sure he knew thered be a backlash, but he wasnt prepared for this backlash. That first interview he did after the social media universe went off on him, it was so choppy and so spotty and nothing was together. I dont think he thought it was going to make such an impact.
He continues: I think that theres a disparity in perspective. I think that we all see things differently. Instead of hearing why hes protesting, they see the disrespect. Theyre not listening to what hes saying. Hes talking about something thats really a problem.
Whats remarkable about watching Joe, Sandy and Wesley talk is that no matter who is speaking, the others listen. Before tonight, the two sides of this argument were strangers. Now, Joe has Wesleys cell number. He didnt change my mind completely. He gave me a new viewpoint, Joe says. What Colin Kaepernick did was beyond the scope of a football game, much more important than some boos during a preseason game. What hes done is force us to talk to each other about a topic that is almost too painful to approach head-on.
There are still some people that dont see our struggle as a problem, Wesley says. Its that lack of empathy, that disinterest that is so maddening for so many black people in this country. People say were disrespectful. Were just saying theres something going on here. Lets work together. We can band together when theres someone else outside of our country attacking us, but when its in house, we take no offense to it. When youre family, you take offense if someone says something about the black sheep of the family. We dont look at all Americans as family.
Id rather smooth it out and say hey, can we meet in the middle somewhere, Sandy says as we finish our drinks. Tonight, that middle is a hotel bar in San Diego, but for the rest of the country, its a dream that sometimes feels too distant. Despite everything we disagree on, Sandy and I find common ground: we both order a vodka tonic. Its a start.