That’s US Soccer star Megan Rapinoe taking a knee during the National Anthem last Sunday. We’ll get to her in a second.
But this thing all started with San Fancisco Forty-Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick. (You can read all about it in the excellent piece by Brian Richards.)
As a football fan I never really liked Colin Kaepernick because I don’t think he can read a defense, I don’t think he can take something off a shallow route and I don’t love showy players. I thought kissing his bicep when he scored was garish me-first sporting shit-culture. Act like you’ve been there before. But hey, it was a phenomenon at the time. “Kaepernicking” they called it. I understand why some people liked it but it wasn’t for me.
I still don’t like him as a player, but I LOVE LOVE LOVE him taking a knee for the anthem. A quick primer: What are people getting so worked up about again? That he’s somehow desecrating an American foundational symbol? Here’s how I see it:
You have the country. The actual territorial landmass.
Then you have the symbols of that country. Birds and flags and stuff. Y’know, symbols.
I say inanimate, but I wasn’t sure where to put birds. Just think SYMBOLS. Then you have the humans. You have the human representatives of that country who work domestically …
Aaaaaand you have the reps who work in a foreign capacity, outside the borders of the country.
There’s a lot of emotion tied to the actual people.
Then you have the ideals of the country: what the country is made up of, governmentally, legally, ideologically, religiously, socially, etc.
So that’s the whole makeup (and I’m rushing through this, so correct me if I’ve missed anything). That’s basically the country. Mostly, people don’t worry about the land. No one is like “Hey! If you don’t like the Mojave Desert, go back to CANADA!” If there’s pride, it tends to be more regional. As in “Puget Sound is more beautiful than Chesapeake Bay” or “I’ll take Old Orchard Beach over Galveston any day.” But that’s not national pride about the physical land. It’s regional.
And yes, I’m using the USA as an example right now, but it could be any country. Unless there’s the threat of an imminent incursion, people don’t tend to get worked up over the actual LAND.
It’s the other four categories where people get fired up.
By protesting - peaceful, lawful protest, I might add- the National Anthem, Colin Kaepernick has dared to insouciantly question the other parts of the country’s makeup as well. By “disrespecting” a symbol, he’s tacitly taking issue with other parts as well. And that’s where it gets murky. Because HE is protesting the plight of people of color in the country that’s represented by that particular song. That’s his cause. But I might see it as him protesting the many members of my family who served in uniform. I might see it as an attack on firefighters or judges or the very Constitution. I might see it as an attack on John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. There’s no telling what personal connections any one person will have to the symbology and representatives of any nation.
For example, I remember being a younger man, maybe in college. On the news there was this image that occurred that day in the 90s or so of a US Air Force fighter jet taking off on the same runway at the same time as a German Luftwaffe fighter jet. I was a student of history, and I felt my knees get weak and I sat back and watched as the two planes rose into the sky next to each other and I started to get emotional and actually tear up. It just happened. That imagery — to me — signified far more than two planes. It was a powerful moment that I’ll never forget, symbolizing a certain level of hope and possibility that had somehow felt cordoned off before that moment. Sure, it was propaganda. It was likely no more than a politically-orchestrated event designed to push forward a diplomatic agenda somewhere. But to me, the symbolism meant something. It was tied to me, for whatever reason, and it stirred emotion inside of me.
And that’s why the reaction to Colin Kaepernick has been so primal, for lack of a better word. Once ego and emotion and personal identity enter into a situation, you can kiss logic and pragmatism goodbye. The United States of America means so many things to so many people that it’s impossible to predict what nerves will be touched. It can feel like a personal slight that some athlete has the audacity to stand in opposition to that symbol, and in doing so, the ideals many people hold dear. But that’s exactly where we have to be careful, and to remember that it’s our duty as citizens to question our leadership. It’s our responsibility to keep our nation in check, lest we become a facsimile of Colonel Jessup from A Few Good Men “I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sets under the very blanket of the freedom that I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it.”
I mean, thousands upon thousands of patriots have DIED so Colin Kaepernick can hear that anthem. If you look deeper, their sacrifice allowed him the protected FREEDOM to kneel or sit during it. That’s what makes it so special. Because you can’t do that in every territory on the Earth. People had to actually fight and perish so he can do that.
Which is exactly why he shouldn’t do it, some would argue.
I think the opposite.
President Obama said it best. He’s “exercising his constitutional right to make a statement.” Colin Kaepernick has a platform. The shelf life of an average NFL player is just under three years, and if you’ve seen him play lately, he’s closer to the end of the line than the beginning of it. He’s already not the player he once was. So he has this small window, this small moment in the public eye, to bring some attention to a cause that matters to him. It’s absolutely his right to do so, and furthermore, it’s the right of others to be critical of the choice if they disagree with it.
Take the example of gold medalist Megan Rapinoe. She’s a professional soccer player who now plays for the Seattle Reign in the National Women’s Soccer League. Last Sunday, in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, she took a knee during the national anthem. In her own words, she was “disgusted by the way Colin Kaepernick was being treated.” She also has personal concerns with the plight of gay people in America. So she kneeled. Those are her particular causes.
A few days later, for her next game, her team played the national anthem before her team was even on the field. Why? Because the team owner disagrees with her. He’s a veteran and he sees her protest as “tarnishing” the tradition. So they play it before the players are even on the field so Megan Rapinoe can’t kneel. They “respectfully disagree[s] with her method of hijacking our organization’s event to draw attention to what is ultimately a personal — albeit worthy — cause.”
Guess what? Team owner Bill Lynch has every right to disagree with her and every right to control the individual elements of his business in any way he sees fit, as long as it’s within the confines of the law.
And everyone else has the right to disagree openly with his decision. Disagreement is good. It’s healthy. It leads to thought and discourse and consideration and, hopefully, advancement. Everyone has weighed in on this Kaepernick issue and here’s the thing: Just because they disagree with you doesn’t make them assholes. People who are pissed off at Kaep aren’t somehow Joseph McCarthy or somehow ‘lesser’ Americans. Just like those of us who respect and admire his protest aren’t ‘lesser’ Americans.
As the NFL’s regular season commences, other players and other teams are planning their trajectory with regard to Kneelgate. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of it. Even now, entire teams, the Seahawks for example, are considering kneeling or sitting en masse.
That’s the thing about promoting Nationalism through the use of symbology at sporting events: It’s all well and good until someone says, “guess what - I have an issue.” When that happens, there’s a built-in protest cannon locked and loaded straight into American living rooms. And some people have a real problem with that. Because, again, their pride and ego and identity are tied to these categories in a different way than yours or mine might be.
In the Tarantino-penned words of Clarence Worley in True Romance, “That’s the way it goes, but sometimes it goes the other way, too.”
You never know how people will react to national symbols. I’ve been talking with my kids about this and I wish I had recorded their faces when I asked them if they would be insulted if I threw a tennis ball at the Statue of Liberty. They clutched their pearls and looked at me like I was a monster. What if I threw an egg at it? What if I shot paintballs at it with a paintball gun?
“That’s VANDALISM!” My 13 year old barked, regarding my smirking face with horror.
What if I make a color copy of the constitution and rip it into little pieces? What if I melt down a Susan B. Anthony coin? What if I stick my gum inside Bunker Hill Monument? What if I burn a flag?
That’s what made them get really testy. Burning a flag. They’d never heard of that before. That someone would ever even THINK to burn a flag. It’s an atrocity.
But why? I asked them. But why? Isn’t it just fabric? What else is it? What does it mean? What does it mean to light what it means on fire?
Figure it out.
These are not easy questions. For children or adults. Going forward, I hope we consider the character it takes to stand up to the backlash of scorn and still adhere to your principles. That can’t be easy. It also can’t be easy to NOT take a knee when you have a sense that certain liberties of yours aren’t as protected as you’d like them to be. It even takes courage to vocally come out loudly for or against such a hot-button issue.
I’m not a fan of jingoistic nationalism, but simple love of country and pride about the ideals you hold dear are concepts that most people seem to have a connection to. Let’s hope that, in the expanding world of non-violent protest, we look as a nation and as a people to address the reasons behind why people do or don’t take a knee. Let’s drill down into the issues themselves.
If one of our brothers or sisters is moved to such a degree that they feel compelled to take a knee, the least we can do is take a knee with them, even if it’s just emotionally and empathetically from afar. There isn’t a country in the world that can’t get better, smarter, more understanding and less corrupt. Not one. Kneeling during the National Anthem is a way to say “I honor this country, but I have a problem with some of the things in it.” That’s all it is. It doesn’t mean you don’t love your country. It doesn’t make you “unamerican” or a “traitor.” It just means you’re concerned. And when that becomes so abundantly clear, people can help you take steps to actually do something about it.
I see you kneeling, Colin Kaepernick. I see you kneeling, Megan Rapinoe.
Let’s think and question and figure it out. Let’s get to the bottom of it. Let’s figure out the note behind the note. Together, as Americans.
United We Stand. Divided, we kneel.