Creating discomfort is the point of Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protest

Last weekend, an Ethiopian runner named Feyisa Lelisa ran 26.1 miles in the Olympic men’s marathon, then raised his arms to form an X as he crossed the finish line. It was a form of protest of his nation’s government, and it had severe consequences that could linger indefinitely: It may be unsafe for him to return to his country, and so he did not go home with his delegation. It is possible he will never see his family again.

There are no such consequences for Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who staged his own political protest on Friday by refusing to stand for the U.S. national anthem before a preseason NFL game.

Colin Kaepernick made a statement on Friday night and gave an explanation on Saturday. (AP)
Colin Kaepernick made a statement on Friday night and gave an explanation on Saturday. (AP)

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told the NFL Network’s Steve Wyche. “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.”

Kaepernick’s words will anger many, but his ability to do something like this without immediate repercussions from his team, his league or his country is something worth acknowledging and celebrating. The U.S. is light years ahead of nations like Ethiopia in part because of the freedom to protest, won and maintained through wars waged by brave soldiers who fought under the flag Kaepernick refused to stand for.

It’s easy to disagree with Kaepernick, to complain about his timing even though he didn’t do this during a regular-season game, to call him unpatriotic even though he cares enough to push for reform in a peaceful, non-violent way, to say he’s a spoiled rich brat even though he may be risking future earnings by taking a stand. Is it better for an athlete to be ignorant of society’s challenges or speak out? Kaepernick is no Pat Tillman, but that doesn’t mean his words don’t have meaning.

Instead of asking him to shut up, we should question him more. We should press him on his feelings on gun control, seeing that he posted a photo of himself with an assault rifle three years ago. A lot of the “bodies in the street” are the result of gun violence, so does Kaepernick have feelings on the relevant issue of gun control? What solutions does he have in mind?

These are questions for other athletes as well – and not just for minority athletes. Cam Newton was asked recently about racism in GQ Magazine. That doesn’t mean Brock Osweiler shouldn’t be asked or Ryan Fitzpatrick. They have the right to refuse comment, but Kaepernick opened the door to questions we all need to be asking ourselves and others.

That’s the tricky tension about what Kaepernick did. If he took part in a televised town hall and said the same, it wouldn’t create the same kind of waves that this protest did. LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony speaking out at the ESPYs was certainly noble, but it didn’t create much in the way of discomfort. Kaepernick, because of the way he spoke out, has created discomfort. And that discomfort is part of the ignition to real dialogue.

Yes, Kaepernick is an American success story, but that shouldn’t cause him to shrug off what he perceives as injustice. Rather, it gives him a chance to speak about an issue that many don’t have the platform to address. There are large segments of the population who feel the police are both empowered and immune to prosecution for their misdeeds. There are people who live in fear, every day, that they will be shot and killed for a broken taillight simply because they are black. For those people, America is not the “land of the free.” It is a place where a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland can be fatally shot outside a rec center because someone deemed him menacing. It’s a place where a citizen vigilante can pursue a teenager for the crime of wearing a hoodie. It’s a place where one false move – or no false move – carries a deadly risk. For many of us, the American flag is reassurance that we will be protected. In the minds of others, that flag offers no such guarantees. Those are truths that some hold to be self-evident, even if they are hard for the majority to see. If the rich and famous do not shine a light to that inconsistency, who will?

“You can’t be selective and dictate what freedoms this country stands for,” Arian Foster tweeted Saturday. “You’re free to have any religious/political views you feel.”

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That does not give Kaepernick the license to disrupt at any cost. Protest through violence or threat is not the way forward. But Kaepernick didn’t interrupt the anthem. He didn’t take away from anyone else’s moment to salute and revere the flag. He didn’t even break a league rule. He simply sat down one night and explained himself the next morning. That allowed for maximum effect with minimum invasiveness.

The simple reply is to say that Kaepernick doesn’t “get” the meaning of the flag or the anthem. Maybe so. But if what he did nurtures talk about the meaning of the anthem, that’s a worthy outcome. For those who hold stereotypes about “dumb jocks,” here’s a chance to discuss the real world instead of focusing on stats and fantasy upside.

This moment is similar to what some WNBA players did over the summer. They wore black shirts in warm-ups as a salute to the Black Lives Matter movement, and refused to take basketball questions after the game. Anyone who saw that was forced to think, “Do I agree with what they did? Why or why not?” The WNBA players started, or continued, a conversation that a lot of people need to have in an election year. Kaepernick escalated that conversation.

It’s a conversation that forces us to think. What do we want our elected officials to do about police brutality, poverty, gun violence and crime? Those who are vehemently opposed to what Kaepernick did are putting the why into words. Those who agree are also explaining why. That’s important, and valuable.

Kaepernick is hardly a pioneer in this. The great Jackie Robinson wrestled with this very topic. Well after his retirement from baseball, he wrote in his autobiography, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem; I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

It’s not that Colin Kaepernick is the next Jackie Robinson, or the next Muhammad Ali. But the statements those legends made are not relics of the past. And sports are part of what enables all of us to keep their voices alive.

In some parts of the world, voices like that have no place at all.