observations and opinion
The conservative writer George F. Will once puckishly said that football “combines two of the worst aspects of American life: violence, punctuated by committee meetings.” He was right, but he left something out about football: it often takes courage. And one American quarterback has just demonstrated more courage than most.
The recent Olympics reminded us that every land has an anthem. Some are long, some are slow, most are pompous, few show much wit. But they are necessary. Every country needs a song.
In Canada, the national anthem (“O, Canada”) was recently changed. A male-sounding reference (“in all thy sons command”) is now a gender neutral one (“in all of us, command.”) There was little fuss about it. Most Canadians don’t know all the words anyway, so they’ll just go on not knowing the new words. Or singing the old ones. Or maybe even learning the new ones, who knows?
Canadians are not overtly demonstrative patriots. They rarely fly the flag. The anthem is confined mainly to sporting events. When Canadians hear the song, they almost never put their hands over their hearts. Canadians often leave their hats on. And they don’t always stand up either. I dislike that. I think Canadians aren’t patriotic enough. I think they should appreciate their country, and they should say so – lustily, noisily, and loudly. I think they should get up and sing the damned song. But they often don’t. They just sit there, which of course, is their right.
This is in sharp contrast with Canada’s southern neighbor, where the sight of Old Glory and the sound of The Star Spangled Banner, make most people spring to attention. Indeed, other than nude starlet photo leaks, little grabs the attention of an American more swiftly than the sound of that stirring, bellicose anthem.
Well, there is one other thing that grabs their attention: when someone doesn’t stand up for that anthem. Thus, the news that NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the song, at a football game, was startling. So were his reasons:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Mr. Kaepernick can’t entirely object to violence (he plays football after all). And despite his apparently progressive politics, he works in a deeply conservative milieu. It is all-male. It is physically tough. Brute strength matters, not just speed or talent. A player who can’t cope with, or avoid, crushing brutality doesn’t survive (there’s no “designated hitter” spot for aging football players).
The NFL is a huge, monied, powerful thing. It has allegedly been killing its employees for a long time, by ignoring evidence of head injuries. Little has been done about it. Its monopolistic wealth and power are protected by a waiver from anti-trust laws. The NFL can get away with more than the Catholic Church. So if the league wants to punish Colin Kaepernick for his unusual stance (or non stance), it can. But apparently, it doesn’t intend to punish him – not yet anyway. Times are changing.
But that’s not stopping many people from punishing Kaepernick verbally. The QB has been the target of a torrent of abuse from “patriotic” and often self-declared “conservative” Americans. Some of it is overtly racist (they comment on Mr. Kaepernick’s biracial heritage) and much is overtly hostile to the man’s politics (they don’t agree that Black Lives Matter, or at least, don’t believe that the police have a behavioural problem towards African Americans.)
Much of the commentary about Kaepernick is predictably crude, mean, ugly and contemptuous. Contempt is the particular flavor of so much online discussion, that it clings to words like a kind of fungus – an invisible italics of anger. We see it on all sides of all arguments.
But what we see in the criticism of Kaepernick, is particularly striking – something unsurprising, yet profoundly disturbing: people are angry because he won’t stand up for the anthem. Yet these people seem to have no idea at all, what they are standing up for, when they stand.
The anthem is a warrior tune. It celebrates victory over tyranny. It celebrates the dawn of liberty in America. A liberty to live one’s life, and speak one’s mind, and obey one’s conscience. Like Colin Kaepernick does.
Americans also have a Pledge of Allegiance, which goes like this: “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Anyone who swears that oath, is declaring to his God – or at least to his conscience – that he bears “allegiance” to the concept of liberty. Liberty has been a moving target in America, as it has in all countries. At the founding of the nation, full liberty was limited to white men. It took 80 years and a Civil War to extend that liberty to black Americans. It took longer to enfranchise women. But even those that have no vote – children and some convicts – enjoy the range of rights afforded by the U.S. Constitution and its Amendments.
There are twenty seven Amendments to the Constitution. We hear a lot about the Second (the one about the right to bear arms.) But the First Amendment is infinitely more important, if not fully understood. It says:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Mr. Colin Kaepernick, by keeping his very expensive posterior affixed to the bench during the national anthem, is exercising his freedom of speech. Americans might cherish guns as part of their birthright, but free speech is the oxygen that liberty breathes. Without it, all freedom ultimately perishes.
By not standing for the national anthem, Mr. Kaepernick is pledging allegiance to the Republic which the song, and the flag, represent. He isn’t standing up for a piece of cloth or a brass band playing a loud tune. He’s standing up (or sitting down) for a principle.
You may not agree with the form of speech he has chosen. Or what he is saying. You may think him a wrong-headed dope. But you would have to blind not to see his courage. To stay seated for the Star Spangled Banner, at the start of a football game in the United States of America, is so brave as to seem foolhardy. Like the Olympians who raised their fists during the anthem at the 1968 Olympics, Kaepernick is permanently marked. He has made himself into a symbol, a dividing line, a lightning rod. A target.
Kaepernich, by sitting, took a stand that has drawn as much attention to himself as to the issue he professes to care about. And, inadvertently, he has drawn attention to the whole matter of free speech. Maybe Kaepernick isn’t helping the BLM cause, I don’t know. Maybe he’s not all that astute a political thinker. Maybe he’s not even all that great a quarterback (he lost the 49ers’ first string job last year). I don’t know that, either.
But what I do know, beyond any shade of doubt, is that Colin Kaepernick is an American hero. He is a hero because he took one of the most valuable things he has in life – his career, and it’s worth a lot – and risked it for the sake of a principle. For the rights of others.
The American Founding Fathers, in the closing words of the Declaration of Independence, said “we pledge our lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” to each other and to liberty. Colin Kaepernick, in a perhaps foolish, perhaps futile, perhaps dangerous gesture, has pledged his life, his fortune and his sacred honor, to his country and countrymen.
Every American – liberal and conservative – should be grateful to Colin Kaepernick, for the bold and patriotic example he has provided. But many are not grateful. They value freedom of speech, alright – but only when it comes out of their own mouths. And when they get up out of their seats for the Stars and Stripes, it is only because they worship an idol – a piece of cloth – rather than the Republic for which it stands.