At the 1968 Summer Olympics, track and field sprinter Tommie Smith raised his hand while atop the gold medal podium in solute of Black Power. His political action raised controversy but also awareness during the Civil Rights Movement.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has recently followed in Smith’s footsteps, sitting and kneeling during the national anthem to protest mistreatment of people of color in America. The athlete first went unnoticed, but by his third game of protest, teammates and opponents alike started to stand in solidarity with him.
While many have responded positively to Kaepernick, there has still been a large backlash. When Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall took a knee during the anthem, he lost his sponsorships. Kaepernick has also been called unpatriotic and received numerous death threats.
Kaepernick’s actions raise the question of whether athletes should make waves with such politically charged statements. What does it mean for the individual, the franchise and the fans? If sports are bigger than the individual, what happens to the team’s structure when players call attention to themselves?
Safety Eric Reid, linebacker Eli Harold and safety Antoine Bethea have been the only 49ers to stand with Kaepernick. In a team, unity creates an environment to achieve a common goal.
While these political statements are unrelated to football, they threaten to dismantle the team. This doesn’t mean each player can’t hold a different belief but rather that different beliefs must be recognized and understood.
It’s clear Kaepernick took extensive efforts when devising his plan, but I wonder if he told his team prior to taking a seat. If the quarterback is trying to create discussion around such a polemic issue, he should have begun within his team to create a mutual understanding of his actions and his teammate’s responses.
On the other hand, Kaepernick has maintained that the oppression of Black people and people of color is bigger than football–bigger than himself–and that it would be wrong of him to turn a blind eye. Other players share this sentiment and applaud Kaepernick for using his platform to call attention to such a pertinent issue.
Football is just a game. Police brutality against people of color, however, is not. But many, including the NFL, don’t like Kaepernick’s use of football to create his statement.
In a Denver Post interview, Brandon Marshall explained the limitations he and Kaepernick feel as NFL players. “We have freedom of speech. But then we use our platform, and we get bashed for it. It’s almost like they want us to only go with the grain. And once we go against the grain, it’s an issue,” Marshall said.
Police brutality has always been problematic and now with social media, the public is more aware of the issue. But that doesn’t mean things are actively changing, especially when people of color are so often silenced.
According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), 71.5 percent of men in the NFL are non-white, with 69.4 percent of that number being people of color. Given these numbers, it makes sense that NFL players of color, like Kaepernick, want to give the issue a voice to support their oppressed community.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell didn’t see this side, arguing the franchise supports players who seek change but not at the cost of patriotism. But maybe the most patriotic act is challenging America’s systemic problems to make it better.
Kaepernick’s methods may not have been the best course of action, but he has spurred discussion about a problem that has been historically ignored. Kaepernick and other players should disregard any negative reaction, come together and continue fighting for change.