San Francisco 49ers’ unyielding activist quarterback Colin Kaepernick sits to take a stand
Protest over police brutality towards blacks has ignited a rancorous national discourse that is overshadowing his spotty play on the field
John Harbaugh is a very good football coach. In eight years, he has guided the Baltimore Ravens to one Super Bowl Championship and six play-off appearances while winning 77 games and losing 51 for an enviable .602 winning percentage.
Despite coming off his only losing season in 2015, Harbaugh is not only secure in his job, he is clearly secure in himself.
When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to sit down during the playing of the American national anthem before an NFL exhibition game last week to protest police violence towards blacks, he predictably ignited a firestorm.
Considering his poor form over the past few years, Kaepernick’s job security was tenuous at best and from a professional perspective his actions were probably the most blatantly damaging thing he could have done.
He has been vilified as an ingrate and a traitor by a number of reactionary commentators and, off the record at least, a large percentage of NFL general managers say they will never let him play for their team now.
Harbaugh, whose brother Jim coached Kaepernick in San Francisco before returning to the college ranks last year, was naturally asked his opinion of the patriotic brouhaha.
“Voltaire so eloquently stated, ‘I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend until death your right to say it,’” Harbaugh said. “That’s a principle that our country is founded on.”
Quoting 17th century French philosophers from the age of enlightenment is not how the jingoistic world of the NFL works. In fact, it is just the opposite.
Despite revenues of over US$10 billion last year, about 70 per cent of the cost of constructing and operating stadiums the NFL plays in is publicly funded, while over 90 per cent of the revenue accrued in those stadiums goes to the league and its owners.
You would be unabashedly patriotic as well if you were getting a deal like that and it’s no surprise that the NFL has co-opted the US military, the Stars and Stripes and the national anthem as an intrinsic part of its propaganda programme, almost to the point where if you disrespect the NFL, you disrespect your country.
However, there is one other mitigating factor the NFL overlords have to deal with: almost 70 per cent of the players in the league are black. Unlike Kaepernick, whose was born to a black father and white mother before being adopted by middle-class white parents, the overwhelming majority of these players come from the very same streets that are boiling over with racial rage, and while some players may not agree with Kaepernick’s methods, most agree with his message.
It is a simple fact that is not lost on Harbaugh, or any other NFL coach for that matter. Team unity is virtually everything in the NFL and Harbaugh is a master at that.
He not only talks the talk, he walks the walk and while he has made some mistakes, at the very least his players know that he is far more enlightened and open than many of his peers. Loyalty breeds commitment even in an entity as ruthless as the NFL.
Kaepernick’s actions were also seen by some as a show of disrespect to the military, a notion he was quick to dismiss.
“I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country,” he said. “And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice for everyone. That’s not happening.”
Proud of Kaepernick for not backing down. A patriot. #VeteransForKaepernick
— Charles Clymer (@cmclymer) September 2, 2016
Surprisingly, a number of military personnel, both black and white, agreed with Kaepernick and garnered a groundswell of support on twitter under the hashtag #VetsForKaepernick. “Proud of Kaepernick for not backing down. A patriot”, one veteran tweeted.
Of course, not every member of the military was thrilled with Kaepernick. Still, the number that unabashedly supported him was completely disorienting for the “America – love it or leave it” crowd.
He may be lapsing into insignificance as a football player, but as a figurehead igniting a much-needed public discourse, Kaepernick reigns supreme. The problem is one begets the other.
Without a job in the NFL his visibility decreases dramatically and if the 49ers should cut him, most teams would likely avoid him if for no other reason than the distraction he has become.
Despite his uneven performance in the past few years, Kaepernick is still a huge talent and seemingly worth taking a risk on, particularly considering there are a number of quarterbacks on NFL rosters with a fraction of his skill.
But none of them are distractions, they stand when they are told.
For the NFL, as well as some sectors of the US, this is most definitely not the age of enlightenment.