by Eric Jayne
The 49ers hosted the L.A. Rams on opening day but sports commentators had more to say about
Kaepernick's silent protest than the on-field matchup. His refusal to stand for the pre-game singing of the National Anthem began in August during the preseason. He explained that it is in response to a country that "oppresses black people and people of color." He further explained, "The National Anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem."
The NFL’s opening day games on September 11 heightened the reverence for the national anthem as it was the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, D.C., and Pennsylvania. This one extraordinarily tragic event arguably created the largest increase in patriotism since the Second World War, causing ceremonies like National Anthem performances to become even more sacred. It would make some sense then that much of the opening day reports were not about team-to-team matchups, but about how other players and teams would respond to this patriotic pre-game ceremony. The Seattle Seahawks team may have won over the nation-worshipping fans as the team stood side-by-side with their arms interlocked, eyes closed, heads bowed during the performance.
Responses poured in from league officials, commentators, and players. Former QB, Trent Dilfer, said that Kaepernick should "be quiet and sit in the shadows," eluding to Kaepernick being a back-up QB, and former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka chimed in saying, "If you don’t like this country, leave it. Really, if you don’t respect it and if you don’t understand it, leave it." One NFL team executive went so far as to call Kaepernick "a traitor" according to The Bleacher Report.
A bit of critical thinking and nominal understanding of constitutional law "sacks" (to borrow a football term) all of those complaints arguing against Kaepernick and this protest. Besides, the flag becomes far less meaningful and representative of American values, such as individual liberty and freedom of expression, if we are not free to express our concerns for the welfare of ourselves, family, and overall citizenry in a way that does no harm to others.
Other players in the NFL, and beyond, have joined Kaepernick by kneeling during the National Anthem. Brandon Marshall of the Denver Broncos lost an advertising endorsement from a local credit union because he also kneeled in protest during the performance on opening day. Marshall again kneeled the following week when the Broncos hosted Indianapolis. He stated, "I wanted to really show that I’m not deterred by the loss of endorsements. It’s not going to make me change my message."
It's a good bet that the football fans who fondly recall Tim Tebow's famous overtly pious kneel, aka "Tebowing", from five years ago don't much appreciate Marshall's socially conscious symbolic kneel. The angry reaction from some fans hasn't shaken Marshall from talking about the deadly impact on communities of color from racism in the police force. He commented, “A lot of the real issues beyond the symbol I’m making, nobody wants to talk about that.” Marshall also responded by donating $300 for every tackle he makes this year to various community-based charities.
Meanwhile, in the 49ers locker room, Kaepernick’s protest appears to have opened a genuine dialogue and raised more awareness of the devastating impact racism continues to have in our nation. Additionally, the team's chief executive announced that the team would donate $1 million to "the cause of improving racial and economic inequality and fostering communication and collaboration between law enforcement and the communities they serve here in the Bay Area."
Eric Jayne is the former president of Minnesota Atheists, where he still sits on the Board. A contributing editor to Atheist Voices of Minnesota and editor of the Foes of Faith blog, he currently lives and works in the Twin Cities area.