The quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, refused to stand for the American national anthem prior to the commencement of an NFL game. Why should this small act of defiance generate so much controversy and debate?
Firstly, the NFL is huge business in the United States. A multibillion dollar extravaganza, the NFL, along with baseball and other national sports, are fused with unbridled patriotism in American popular culture. The national anthem is played as a matter of routine. Chris Hedges, long-term commentator and political writer, wrote in an article back in 2014 that sporting events have largely become mass religious ceremonies tied to blessing American wars and militarism. The virtual religious reverie of the sporting arena – typified by NFL games – is used to normalise inflated war budgets, cultivate public support for the US military forces, and reinforce public opinion in favour of endless wars overseas. He wrote that:
The heroes of war and the heroes of sport are indistinguishable in militarized societies. War is sold to a gullible public as a noble game. Few have the athletic prowess to play professional sports, but almost any young man or woman can go to a recruiter and sign up to be a military hero. The fusion of the military with baseball, along with the recruitment ads that appeared intermittently Saturday on the television screens mounted on green iron pillars throughout Fenway Park, caters to this illusion: Sign up. You will be part of a professional team.
While traditional places of worship remain empty on Sundays, the sporting arena is where religious fervour is expressed. The uniforms, caps, and paraphernalia of football (and baseball as Hedges wrote) form modern-day holy relics, preserved in the museums and halls of sporting fame across the land. The collective outpouring of euphoria is accompanied by, among other things, the singing of the national anthem. It is not unusual for military aircraft to stage flyovers prior to NFL games. The beauty, power and precision of the airplanes – according to the NFL – demonstrate the close fusion of sporting prowess and military heroism in the public mind. However, there is no mention of the horrific toll that war takes on the population. As Hedges reminds us:
War is not a sport. It is about killing. It is dirty, messy and deeply demoralizing. It brings with it trauma, lifelong wounds, loss and feelings of shame and guilt. It leaves bleeding or dead bodies on its fields. The pay is lousy. The working conditions are horrific. And those who come back from war are usually discarded. The veterans who died waiting for medical care from Veterans Affairs hospitals could, if they were alive, explain the difference between being a multimillion-dollar-a-year baseball star and a lance corporal home from Iraq or Afghanistan. At best, you are trotted out for a public event, as long as you read from the script they give you, the one designed to entice the naive into the military. Otherwise, you are forgotten.
The NFL crowds roar their enthusiastic approval during the prematch flyovers – the military that produces crippled and traumatised veterans, while libraries and schools close, and billions are allocated to ever-expanding military budgets. Back in 1991, in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, when the United States pummeled Iraq – the latter a military pipsqueak compared to the US – patriotic fervour was at an all-time high. Prior to the commencement of the SuperBowl that year, in Tampa, Florida, Whitney Houston – a black woman – sang a rousing rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. Her talent was incredible and indisputable. Here was an America that had vanquished the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ – public opposition to overseas wars. America was patriotic and great again – what could be more emblematic than a black woman, surrounded by American flags, belting out the national anthem at the SuperBowl?
Decades later, America remains mired in the Iraqi quagmire struggling to turn defeat into something resembling a positive return on investment, the United States remains the starting point and epicentre of the terminal phase in the capitalist economic crisis, and a professional black American footballer refuses to stand for the national anthem. Kaepernick’s simple protest action has sent shock waves throughout American society, and his action has filtered through not only the sports world, but also into the political system. Kaepernick, and those who have stood by him throughout this controversy, are challenging the blind faith in patriotism, the latter that makes all of us ignore the ills plaguing the country. Police violence against African Americans is at epidemic proportions, and Kaepernick highlighted this issue as one of the reasons why he took the action he did.
Not only are police officers avoiding accountability for their murderous actions, the financial oligarchy that is responsible for the current economic downturn has also avoided facing the consequences of its culpability. Kaepernick’s action is gaining support not only from African Americans and supporters in the Black Lives Matter movement. American war veterans, white and black, are also organising support for the quarterback. They are refusing to join the violent right-wing backlash against Kaepernick, pointing out that military service does not blind them to the fact that African Americans are being assaulted and killed by brutal police forces across the country. Former US Army Ranger Rory Fanning expressed his support for Kaepernick, stating in an interview that:
Anyone who’s been to a sports event in this country, or seen one on television, knows full well the connection that is made between sports and military. From the national anthem to the jets flying overhead to the convenient trotting out soldiers to “thank them,” nationalism and “patriotism” is constantly forced down the throats of sports fans.
Many soldiers thought they were going overseas to sacrifice for freedom and democracy. But they are not seeing those ideals being practiced in this country.
Kaepernick’s protest is resonating with soldiers who feel like they’ve been lied to. One thing that has come across clearly from so many soldiers’ tweets and posts is that soldiers do not feel like they are risking their lives so the state can kill with impunity here in the United States.
Fanning added that while the United States kills people overseas with impunity, the same thing is happening inside the US itself. He explained that he had served in Afghanistan; however:
Then after returning from Afghanistan I saw how the security state had grown at home. I saw that the United States has the largest prison population in the history of the world, with African Americans (there are a lot of people of color in the military) being disproportionately incarcerated. Public schools are being gutted in every city. The media and politicians barely mention our endless trillion-dollar wars and drone operations.
Let us listen to what Kaepernick is trying to say about the condition of his own society, rather than wrap ourselves in the false mantle of wounded patriotism. He is using his status and fame as an NFL player to raise awareness about the legalised, systematic form of racist police violence and jarring economic inequalities. As Dave Zirin commented in his column about Kaepernick’s protest:
It is also pathetic that so many in the sports media, who a few months ago were praising the legacy of Muhammad Ali, are coming down so ferociously on Colin Kaepernick. As if sports and politics can mix only in the past tense, and racism is something that can only be discussed as a historical question. People can choose to agree or disagree with Kaepernick’s analysis or arguments, but they should deal with the reality of the facts he’s risking his career to bring into light.
Kaepernick’s true sin – if you can call it that – is to highlight the injustice of an economic and political system in which he has thrived. Make no mistake – Kaepernick acquired wealth and fame in the NFL structure, and is risking losing all of that in taking the stand that he did. He is willing to sacrifice millions in endorsements, corporate sponsorships and salary to raise awareness of, and take a stand against, the racist injustice of an unequal corporate state. Kaepernick has broken the silence around the bargain that successful athletes make with corporate America – remain silent about the racism in society, and enjoy your millions as you rise the sporting ladder.
The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States drew a false finish line beneath the question of racism. After all, has not racism ended with the rise of a black man (actually a biracial man) to the top political office in the land? Is not Kaepernick himself biracial and successful? What grounds for complaint does he have? It is interesting to point out that Kaepernick, being of biracial background, is not the first person with mixed ancestry to protest against racism. Malcolm X had white ancestors, those ancestors passing on their reddish hair and lighter skin to the main who rose up eloquently and bravely against racism. Frederick Douglass, the anti-slavery writer and activist; W E B Du Bois, sociologist and the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University – both had white ancestors, and yet both became, each in their own generation, courageous and intelligent advocates for African Americans.
An elite composed of black faces is taken to indicate that America has resolved its racial divisions. Kaepernick reminds us that African Americans, regardless of whether or not individuals have ‘made it’, face a racist corporate state determined to defend its wealth and privileges at all costs. Kaepernick’s protest reminds us that human solidarity and empathy cannot be banished, while the fundamentalist doctrine of neoliberal austerity ravages the community. Individual success, while noteworthy, should not be acquired at the expense of societal resources. Kaepernick’s motivations are not unrealisable pipe-dreams; his colleagues in the NFL have taken their stand as well.