The “Colin Kaepernick Caper” continues to roll right along, gathering no moss whatsoever. Since Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the playing of the national anthem at a San Francisco 49ers preseason game last week, think pieces on patriotism, the right to dissent and protest, the racism in the “Star-Spangled Banner” and even Kaepernick’s football record have flooded the cybersphere. Another set of think pieces surrounds black athletes who have used their visibility to protest injustice within the United States. Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf are the ones who figure most prominently in this area.
And then there’s Jackie Robinson, the man who “broke the color line” and became the first African American player on a major league team. Back in 1972, his career in baseball safely behind him, Robinson penned his autobiography. In it, he spoke of the day he took the field in in his first ever World Series while the national anthem played in the stadium:
There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.
Many have condemned Kaepernick for speaking out against injustice because he has a multimillion dollar contract and lives a comfortable lifestyle. And because his record as QB of the 49ers is less than stellar in sports aficionados’ eyes. And because nothing in his background or career can compare to that of the great Jackie Robinson or the great Muhammad Ali. All those criticisms miss the point. Kaepernick essentially said there is something wrong currently happening in American society. This wrong Kaepernick spoke of was also around when Jackie Robinson said he couldn’t “sing the anthem” and “salute the flag.” Instead of comparing Kaepernick’s record with that of a Robinson or an Ali, critics—and racists—ought to focus on that instead.