Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, is the new John Carlos or Tommie Smith of 1968.
Carlos and Smith raised a fist in support of the Black Power movement during the playing of our national anthem at the Olympic Games that year. Two athletes who benefited from the rights and freedoms our country promises its citizens. Two athletes who won Olympic medals representing the United States. Two athletes speaking out against racial injustice. And now Colin Kaepernick, a successful athlete and person of color, has made a similar statement—by refusing to stand and face our American flag during the Star Spangled Banner. And he’s receiving similar backlash to that of Carlos and Smith.
I grew up with a deep sense of pride in the United States of America. Both of my grandfathers and my grandmother served in the military. My father served. My father-in-law and two brothers-in-law served. I have a relative who was on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and a relative who completed three grueling tours in Iraq. I proudly fly my American flag outside my house year-round. I would never sit during the Star Spangled Banner without my hand over my heart or refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance. I hold sacred the symbolism of our flag and have a deep appreciation for those who have fought for it, and for me.
However, I also believe our country is in trouble. I am disgusted and disappointed in the continued racism that plagues our 50 states. I don’t condone violence as a means of protest, but I can sympathize with the #blacklivesmatter movement—a movement that arose out of frustration and injustice.
Like Colin Kaepernick, I am fearful of the future if our country does not see change. And like Colin Kaepernick, I have used my platform (my small internet following) to voice my opinion. And not everyone agrees with me.
I’ve been called anti-police and anti-American, both of which cut deep. Because I truly respect police officers and believe that they are generally good, dedicated civil servants. But a racial problem continues to pervade our country and there are many of us—fellow Americans—who feel compelled to speak and to act.
After Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for our flag, the internet was (not surprisingly) cutting in its response. Images of veterans who had lost their legs in combat flooded news sites and social media. He was blasted for being a wealthy, out-of-touch athlete who had never experienced oppression. His behavior was seen as despicable and unforgivable.
However, not all veterans criticized Kaepernick’s actions.
Jim Wright, a white U.S. Navy veteran, wrote a response that went viral. He says that demanding all Americans show respect to the flag is actually not respect at all.
It’s only the illusion of respect.
If THAT’s what matters to you, the illusion of respect, then you’re not talking about freedom or liberty. You’re not talking about the United States of America. Instead you’re talking about every dictatorship from the Nazis to North Korea where people are lined up and MADE to salute with the muzzle of a gun pressed to the back of their necks.
Wright goes on to say:
America must be worthy of respect. Torture, rendition, indefinite detention, unarmed black men shot down in the street every day, poverty, inequality, voter suppression, racism, bigotry in every form, obstructionism, blind patriotism, NONE of those things are worthy of respect from anybody — least of all an American.
A true veteran might not agree with Colin Kaepernick, but a true veteran would fight to the death to protect his right to say what he believes.
You don’t like what Kaepernick has to say? Then prove him wrong, BE the nation he can respect.
And on the other hand, Allen West, a black combat veteran, completely disagrees with Kaepernick’s actions and penned this response:
First of all, let me clarify to you sir, you are a multi-millionaire ‘one-percenter’ just because you can throw a ball and kiss your biceps. Men like Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Oscar Robertson, Ernie Davis, and Bernard King and Condredge Halloway of my alma mater were athletes who knew of oppression. You sir may certainly have the right to sit upon your ‘fourth point of contact’ when the National Anthem is played but never forget, you live in a nation that has provided you the privilege to have that right.
Furthermore, Kaepernick’s fellow athletes have shown their disgust with his behavior. Victor Cruz, wide receiver for the New York Giants, stated:
I think, personally, the flag is the flag. Regardless of how you feel about the things that are going on in America today and the things that are going on across the world with gun violence and things like that. You’ve got to respect the flag and stand up with your teammates. It’s bigger than just you, in my opinion. I think you go up there. You’re with your team, and you pledge your allegiance to the flag and the national anthem as a team, and then you go about your business, whatever your beliefs are.
So the question is, does Colin Kaepernick’s behavior make him un-American? Or does it make him a true American? Does being an American mean saluting the flag no matter what? Does it mean standing with your team? Or does it mean speaking out and exercising your right as an American to stand alone?
I personally would never disrespect the flag, but my America has been pretty damn good to me. My privileged life in white suburbia might make it slightly easier for me to stand by our flag. You might say Colin Kaepernick has obviously had it good, too—after all, he makes millions of dollars a year throwing a football.
But maybe he’s not speaking for himself. Maybe he’s speaking for those without a voice. Maybe he’s using his fame and influence to enact change, to get people talking, to try to right some of the wrongs in this country. Is he taking a risk? Maybe. Could he lose an endorsement deal, or maybe even a contract, and cut down his millions? Who knows. But the one thing we can all agree on is that he has started a conversation. Or at the very least, given a substantial boost to a conversation that was already happening. And that’s where progress starts.
But I’ll end with this. Now what, Colin? Put your influence to work. Sitting down was your way of making a statement. Now your country needs you to stand up and do something. The American people are watching. As Navy veteran Jim Wright says, be the nation you can respect.