Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was in the news last week, in a story that gives me a nagging, uneasy feeling about the health of our republic.
Kaepernick is the professional football player who experienced considerable notoriety last season by declining to stand during the pregame rendition of the national anthem. He was protesting the history of racism in our country, as well as its current manifestations. In the spring, Kaepernick exercised his free agency option and left the 49ers.
Last week another former 49ers quarterback, Joe Montana, speculated regarding the fact that no other team has picked up Kaepernick. Only the Seattle Seahawks gave him a tryout, and they took a pass.
Montana told the Sporting News that the reason Kaepernick isn’t currently in the National Football League is that he just isn’t a strong enough player.
I don’t have the football credentials to contradict Montana on this point. He’s a 16-season NFL legend and Hall-of-Famer. Still, people who know more about football than I do don’t necessarily agree with Montana.
Mike Moffitt, writing for SFGate, points out that before he declined to hire Kaepernick, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll called him “a starter in this league.” Further, the Washington Post has noted that Kaepernick is statistically superior to at least half of the backup quarterbacks in the NFL.
And USA Today reported in March that former NFL coach Jim Harbaugh evaluates Kaepernick this way: “I think he’s an outstanding player and I think he’s a great competitor who has proven it in games and has the ability to be not only an NFL starter but a great NFL player.”
Furthermore, in his commentary on Kaepernick, Montana sounds suspiciously equivocal: He says that Kaepernick’s lack of a job “comes down to his play as much as anything.”
The “anything” here, of course, is the fact that Kaepernick refused to participate in a ritual that millions observe every week before football and baseball games, as well as rodeos, conventions, convocations and commencements.
So while Montana contends that Kaepernick just wasn’t good enough for the NFL, the real reason seems to reveal itself when he concedes, “One of the things you don’t look for is distractions in the locker room.”
Distractions? This is the part that makes me uneasy. Kaepernick’s protest was deadly serious, far beyond a distraction, and it required courage. The great story of the founding of our nation is a flimsy half-truth unless we occasionally acknowledge the parallel, dark-side story that African Americans continue to live with.
That parallel story may be unpleasant, the sort of thing that we’d prefer not to be reminded of when we’re trying to enjoy a football game. But it’s not the prerogative of white people to say when or where or how a black man who has a national stage should or should not direct our attention to that miserable strain of American history.
The right to express an opinion without consequence is an inherent American principle. We should always be uneasy when citizens are penalized for failure to comply with an arbitrary index on their allegiance to our country. Before long, we’re assessing people’s patriotism on externals such as whether they’re wearing a flag pen or holding their hands over their hearts during the Pledge of Allegiance.
I’m not saying that Colin Kaepernick chose the best method for calling our attention to the racial injustices that still exist in our culture. I’m saying that it’s not my place to say how or when he should be able to express himself. Nor is it yours. Nor is it the NFL’s.
If you think that Kaepernick’s protest didn’t take courage, try not standing up the next time you’re in a crowd that rises for the national anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance. If Kaepernick suffers consequences for his expression of an unpopular opinion, well, it’s hard to think of many other things that are more un-American.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.