How we got from Kaepernick’s silent protest in 2016 to the tumult of this past weekend, when the president’s remarks incited around 200 players to participate in a variety of responses is a case study of how easy it is today for a message to be co-opted and re-apportioned.
The president grasped the nuance involved in national-anthem protests, and the chasm that can develop when the pain of perceived injustice intersects with the passion of patriotism and respect for the flag.
“Part of what makes this country special is that we respect people’s rights to have a different opinion and to make different decisions about how they want to express their concerns,” he said. “The test of our fidelity to our constitution, to freedom of speech, to our Bill of Rights, is not when it’s easy, but when it’s hard. We fight sometimes so that people can do things we disagree with.”
That was not the current president but the previous one, Barack Obama, speaking last September at a town-hall meeting, shortly after then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had ignited a national firestorm by refusing to stand for the anthem.
It’s amazing to think Kaepernick sat for two exhibition games before anyone even noticed. Once revealed, however, the ensuing debate has raged on for more than a year, finally reaching critical mass last weekend when Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, took a much different approach, one not surprisingly lacking an iota of nuance.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’ ” the president said Friday at an Alabama rally.
“You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it, (but) they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
How we got from Kaepernick’s silent protest to the tumult of this past weekend, when Trump’s remarks incited around 200 players to participate in a variety of pregame responses, in some cases accompanied by the team owner, is a case study of how easy it is in our modern society for a message to be co-opted and re-apportioned.
Suddenly, as journalist David Korn tweeted Sunday morning, “The kneel will now become a sign of opposition to Trump.”
In other words, it’s the same highly charged, emotional battle that has raged in one form or another, back and forth, since Election Day. Never mind nuance, or the complicated issues of racial injustice that motivated Kaepernick to begin with. Trump made it solely about fealty to flag and country, which to be fair is where many already had taken it. But to hear a president cursing citizens engaged in peaceful protest and advocating their firing, well, that was as jarring as it was incendiary.
At the outset of his protest, Kaepernick told reporters, “I’m not anti-American. I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.”
But that has been a tough sell to a large portion of fans, who either refuse to acknowledge his charges of unfair policing, or who can’t get past the optics of a less-than-solemn posture during the anthem. Over time it has been perceived by many that he and other players who followed him — including Michael Bennett of the Seahawks — are “protesting the anthem” and by extension disrespecting military men and women.
Never mind that early in the process Kaepernick got the tacit support of former Green Beret (and brief Seahawks long snapper) Nate Boyer. It was Boyer who met with Kaepernick for 90 minutes before the 49ers’ final exhibition game in 2016 and showed him text messages from military friends upset that he was sitting during the anthem.
That prompted Kaepernick to kneel instead of sit — and for that game, Boyer stood to his left with his hand over his heart. Afterward, Boyer and Kaepernick embraced, and Boyer posted a picture of the two of them on Twitter with the message, “Thanks for the invite brother … Good talk. Let’s just keep moving forward. this is what America should be all about.”
Indeed it is. I’ve heard the same sentiment from numerous servicemen and women, the understanding they fought so people such as Kaepernick and Bennett had the freedom to express their dissatisfaction. That includes my 93-year-old father, one of the rapidly dwindling number of World War II veterans still alive — the Greatest Generation, down to about 500,000 from the 16 million Americans who served. He fully supports Kaepernick’s right to kneel, and that of those who have followed.
I’ve also heard, of course, from military people and others who are outraged over what they believe is a desecration of the primary symbol of our country. I understand why this is such a hot-button issue for so many people, and I don’t minimize their reaction. As Obama said, the toughest tests come when it’s hard, not easy.
Yet I would hope, perhaps naively, that people would respect the depth of feeling on the other side, too, and that somehow, when Trump’s hectoring simmers down, both groups can emulate the empathy of Boyer. In an open letter Boyer wrote to Kaepernick in Army Times, he said, “Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it. When I told my mom about this article, she cautioned me that ‘the last thing our country needed right now was more hate.’ ”
A year later, those words apply even more.