Colin Kaepernick Will Not ‘Behave’ And That’s A Damn Good Thing

Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers will not stand during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games. As he put it, after refusing to stand during the 49ers against the Packers this past weekend:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color….To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way….There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

And he is prepared for the consequences, for after all, his employer, NFL fans and sponsors, and the media could, and almost certainly will, turn on him:

I have to stand up for people that are oppressed….If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.

There are several interesting aspects to Kaepernick’s stance. First, and perhaps most importantly, there is no ambiguity about his stance. This is not a call to ‘come together,’ to ‘heal,’ to ‘forget and forgive’; this is not a bromide or a platitude to split the difference and maintain a quiescent state of affairs. This is a combative gesture of protest, one designed to be provocative, aimed against a symbol that is all too quickly used as protective cover by insecure patriots. They will soon issue the usual furious canards about how Kaepernick has ‘insulted’ those ‘who have died for the country defending our freedoms.’ Second, in so doing, Kaepernick is not merely taking aim at the police; he is indicting a much larger set of institutions, cultures, and practices. Indeed, by rejecting a classical gesture of respect for a national symbol, Kaepernick is rejecting the claims of the nation upon him, one to whom he feels his allegiance should not be directed as long as it does not fulfill its end of the citizenship bargain.

Athletes taking a political stance are not unknown. Some professional athletes have to be pressured or shamed into doing so; they speak up quickly and retreat, worried that their livelihood as will be jeopardized. The First Amendment will not protect them against their private employers. Others–like Mohammad Ali or Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics–made more explicit gestures of protest and paid the price. In the American context, because so many athletes are African-American, they can expect that the responses to their political statements will be infected by a racism and anger and contempt that they know is never too far from the surface of their most dedicated fans. They know they are expected to be ‘good blacks’: do your act, entertain us, and when you are done, leave the stage quietly; do not stick around to torment our conscience or force introspection upon us; we like our athletes compliant and docile; do not remind us of where you came from and what you might identify with; indeed, you have no other identity than that given to you by your contract and your employer.

Colin Kaepernick has just refused compliance with these orders. He deserves our respect and admiration and support.

Does the Left Hate America? The Case of Soccer

Yesterday, as the United States struggled to hold on to its 1-0 lead against Ghana, the rumblings on social media grew: Ghana were surely due to equalize any moment now. When they did, the jubilation on Twitter timelines and Facebook feeds was palpable. But it wasn’t just Ghanaian fans that were cheering for that 1-1 scoreline. Plenty of Americans were too. And these folks, identified quite easily by their previous histories of publicly avowed political sentiments, were clearly of the leftist political persuasion. A few minutes later, John Brooks cast a pall over them. But not for long: some looked forward to the American team getting its comeuppance later, perhaps against Germany or Portugal.

There are few sports in which American sports teams are underdogs. Soccer is one of them. But America isn’t much of an underdog in any other domain or dimension. So for those who like to cheer for underdogs, cheering for America is a highly unnatural act–and so they won’t, even if it means supporting Germany or Portugal, two soccer powerhouses.

The leftist cheering against the American soccer team is motivated by something a little more visceral: a desire to not be on the side of those visibly cheering for the American team. Many American fans, like those from other countries, drape themselves in their nation’s flag–in various forms, sometimes shirts, sometimes bandannas, sometimes something else–and raise loud slogans and sing tuneless songs. The semiotics of the American flag and the American chant are quite complicated for this seemingly anti-American demographic.

The American flag–thanks to the complicated history of American imperial ambitions and its modern incarnations–is a loaded symbol; in the domestic political context it has often to come to represent a forced, unambiguous American identity, one that all must pledge allegiance to, a quasi-religious icon that cannot be desecrated. And the most common American chant–USA! USA! USA!–has, in this post-911 era, come to represent an aggressive proclamation of American triumphalism. (You can hear it in the background as George W. Bush speaks at the site of the Twin Towers and promises revenge; you could hear it on the day he threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium that same season.)

I don’t think those cheering against the American soccer team have anything against the likes of Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore and their mates. The American team is, as befitting an American grouping, quite diverse: players of mixed racial parentage, of immigrant backgrounds, drawn from a variety of social and cultural settings. The American team plays a hybrid style all its own, and its many players entertain, in the US’ professional soccer league, crowds that are increasingly eclectic in their economic and ethnic makeup.  But when an international tournament is underway, the American team does duty for the nation, and they are often cheered on by those who seemingly would like to see yet another domain fall to the inexorable march of the American juggernaut. An American win–it is feared by those Americans who would cheer against their national team–would merely spark another orgy of self-congratulatory exceptionalism. Better to root against it–to ward off such unpleasantness.

Note: I find myself cheering for the US when it goes up against a European soccer powerhouse. When they play South American, Asian, or African countries, my underdog sympathies kick in. The US might be a soccer underdog, but its team does not seem to be lacking in resources.