Suddenly, everything became deplorable. Donald Trump and his supporters are deplorable, Hillary Clinton’s comments were deplorable, Gov. Matt Bevin’s abuse of power is deplorable. UK football is, well — has been deplorable for a long time.
But San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is not deplorable. What he is standing, or kneeling, for is not deplorable, but commendable. President Obama said it best about Kaepernick: “I’d rather have young people who are engaged in the argument and trying to think through how they can be part of our democratic process than people who are just sitting on the sidelines and not paying attention at all.”
What would you say about a (hypothetical) 26-year-old Iranian cricket player who protested his country’s social treatment of women or minorities by kneeling during its national anthem?
That’s not deplorable. That’s more American than the “Star Spangled Banner,” itself.
Also not deplorable are Americans who don’t agree with Kaepernick’s protests.
Americans generally just don’t like to mix their sports with politics. And, to a certain extent, that’s fair. Sports are a source of entertainment, and one that usually provides a respite from the clamor of politics. So it’s understandable that people get defensive when their sports safe-haven is threatened.
But mixing politics and sports isn’t new. Mixing politics with entertainment isn’t new. You can’t tell the story of Muhammad Ali — Louisville’s and the world’s most-beloved athlete — without committing a major portion to his political activism. And he was jailed for his protest.
And if Kap’s protest is a question of efficacy, the University of Missouri football team proved the power of protest just last year. Weeks of on-campus protests for the school’s handling of racial tensions failed to force Missouri president to resign. But it took only a threat from the football team to win that change within two days.
Some of the most important, iconic moments in American history have taken place in the sports arena. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists during the National Anthem made one of the most enduring and important images of the Olympics and the Civil Rights Movement. The “Miracle on Ice” was a hockey game that became the proxy for an actual battle between America and the Soviet Union that never took place. In fact, the Cold War was also a public-relations battle, largely waged within sports and entertainment arenas. For several decades the Cold War was fought in movie theaters, on TV shows, in comics and on an ice rink in Lake Placid, New York.
But just as the “National Anthem” is a unifying force that can coalesce 300 million Americans, it can’t just be a symbol of America, but a tool to help make a more perfect America. America has plenty of symbolic patriotism.
Enough posting on Facebook, enough lapel pins, enough covering your heart during the “Star Spangled Banner.” Certainly enough ridiculing an Olympian who is a true American representative and symbol of our country, for not covering her heart with her hand, as people criticized 20-year-old Gabby Douglas, American gold-medal gymnast.
No, covering your heart doesn’t make you a patriot. If the “National Anthem” is that important to sporting events, then demand TV networks show all them being performed, not just during prime-time games and the Super Bowl.
I’m frustrated by the abundance faux-patriotism in this country, but I’m not going to disparage others for celebrating America the way they see fit. It’s fine if you feel it’s important to raise a flag and make sure it never touches the ground. It’s fine if you start your workday, or school day, with the “Pledge of Allegiance.” It’s great if you want to stand, remove your hat and cover your heart during the singing of our “National Anthem” — as I do.
But it’s also fine if you don’t.
Because, whether you like it or not, that song and the flag that it honors stands for both. And when you marginalize just one person trying to be part of the solution, you risk marginalizing hundreds, or thousands or even millions of potential followers. Kaepernick is as much a symbol of America as is the flag itself, and to disrespect him would be worse than disrespecting the “National Anthem.” •