As he prepares for his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, Shaquille O’Neal paid a visit to Fox News Channel’s “Fox and Friends” for a chat. One of the topics that came up: Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing refusal to stand for the singing of the national anthem before NFL games, a decision he says he has made in protest of the oppression of black people and other people of color. For his part, the legendary center says he’s not on board with the San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s chosen method of protest.
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After a news brief on an offshoot of the larger Kaepernick story — the statement by John Tortorella, head coach of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and the United States’ entrant in the upcoming World Cup of Hockey, that any Team USA players who choose to sit on the bench for the national anthem “will sit there the rest of the game” — the anchors asked O’Neal for his view on anthem protests. The four-time NBA champion, 15-time All-Star and “Inside the NBA” commentator responded:
I mean, to each his own. It’s something I wouldn’t do. His comments were there are injustices. There have always been injustices. Me, personally, I would probably go about it a different way. You know, my question is, what happened last year? How come you didn’t decide to do this last year or the year before that or the year before that?
I don’t know Colin, but to each his own. I don’t really have a say on it, but I would never do that. My father was a military man, and he protected this country. My uncles are in law enforcement. They go out and work hard every day. Just, there are other ways to get your point across.
O’Neal also asserted that while some might call for him as a black man to support Kaepernick’s protest of systemic racism, he can be both black and pro-military and pro law-enforcement. From there, he questioned why Kaepernick only began to start speaking up on these issues now:
Again, my thing is, you have to enter onto the scene one way. People like Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell, they were one way their whole career. You can’t show us something and then go to another just because of certain issues. I’m aware of all the issues, but my question is, how come you didn’t do it last year? Or how come you didn’t do it when you first entered the NFL? I don’t know Colin. To each his own. It’s his constitutional right to do that, but I’d never do that.
O’Neal’s comments strike a different note from those of reigning two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. He said in a Wednesday interview on CNBC that he applauds Kaepernick “for taking a stand,” and hoped that as the conversation the quarterback sparked moves forward, the focus trains on what “his message was and not, ‘Is he going to stand or is he going to sit for the national anthem?'”
O’Neal’s question about timing seems to point at the difference in Kaepernick’s standing in the sporting world in 2016, as a backup quarterback on what’s largely expected to be a bad football team, and where it was in 2012 through 2014, when he ascended to a starting role and helped the 49ers make one Super Bowl and come within a last-minute interception of making a second, earning a six-year, $126 million contract.
Maybe Kaepernick made his choice because he’s already gotten paid, was viewed as being on his way out of the league and believed he had little to lose. Maybe he made it because, as he’s seen and experienced different things between the ages of 23 and 28, the way he’s thought about them has changed. As the author and political activist Arundhati Roy once wrote, “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out.”
For what it’s worth, Kaepernick addressed a version of the “why now?” question in his 18-minute media session with reporters on Aug. 28, after his protest was first noticed. From Tim Kawakami’s transcript for the Bay Area News Group:
-Q: Is this something that has evolved in your mind? How has it progressed to where you make a stand like this?
-KAEPERNICK: It’s something that I’ve seen, I’ve felt. Wasn’t quite sure how to deal with originally. And it is something that’s evolved. It’s something that as I’ve gained more knowledge about what’s gone on in this country in the past, what’s going on currently, these aren’t new situations.
This isn’t new ground. These are things that have gone on in this country for years and years and have never been addressed. And they need to be. […]
-Q: Did you seek counsel on this?
-KAEPERNICK: This is a conversation I’ve had with a lot of people a lot of times over a long period of time. So it wasn’t something that I planned on having a conversation about a particular time. It just so happened it was the other night that people realized it and talked about it.
In that media session, Kaepernick also addressed the other major point O’Neal made — that he couldn’t participate in the same sort of protest because of his love of and respect for members of the armed forces and law enforcement:
-Q: So many people see the flag as a symbol of the military. How do you view that? What do you say to those people?
-KAEPERNICK: I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country.
They fight for freedom. They fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that’s not happening.
People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. It’s something that’s not happening.
I’ve seen videos. I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they fought for and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right. […]
-Q: Are you concerned that this is seen as a blanket indictment of law enforcement?
-KAEPERNICK: What’s that?
-Q: It can be seen as a blanket indictment of law enforcement.
-KAEPERNICK: As far as what? I don’t really understand what you’re trying to get at.
-Q: You say people are getting murdered by police. You seem to indict all of police.
-KAEPERNICK: There is police brutality. People of color have been targeted by police. So that’s a large part of it. And their government officials. They’re put in place by the government so that’s something that this country has to change.
There’s things we can do to hold them more accountable, make those standards higher. You have people that practice law and our lawyers and go to school for eight years, but you can become a cop in six months and don’t have to have the same amount of training as a cosmetologist.
That’s insane. Someone that’s holding a curling iron has more education and more training than people that have a gun and are going out on the street to protect us.
A number of military veterans took to social media last week to express their support for Kaepernick’s actions, arguing that they served in the armed forces to defend constitutional rights like the ability to peaceably protest.
Kaepernick’s views on law enforcement, in particular, again came under fire last week when photos of him wearing socks featuring a cartoon pig wearing a policeman’s hat during an early August practice. Kaepernick responded to criticism of the socks in a statement posted on Instagram clarifying that he, too, has family members on the police force, and that his quarrel is with “the rogue cops that are allowed to hold positions in police departments, [who] not only put the community in danger, but also the cops that have the right intentions […] by creating an environment of tension and mistrust.”
While it might be more enlightening to hear him engage the critiques of injustice and racism levied by the quarterback rather than just the method he’s using to raise them, O’Neal certainly has a right to his opinion on Kaepernick’s actions. It’s interesting to note, though, that when a similar circumstance arose during O’Neal’s NBA playing career — Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf choosing not to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the 1996 season in part because he believed the United States’ history of oppression clashed with his beliefs as a Muslim — Shaq took a different tack. From a March 14, 1996, story by Sam Donnellon of the Philadelphia Daily News:
Other players seem to be split down the middle on the issue as well. “I wish those of us who are Christians were as dedicated to our religion as [Abdul-Rauf] is to his,” teammate LaPhonso Ellis said. “I admire the guy for his perseverance.”
“People have different beliefs,” Orlando center Shaquille O’Neal said. “People should respect that. It isn’t dishonorable.”
Shaq, of course, was a friend of Abdul-Rauf, who went by the name Chris Jackson when the two played together in college at LSU. Earlier this summer, O’Neal took it upon himself to write a letter to the LSU Basketball Jersey Retirement Committee imploring them to hoist to the rafters the No. 35 uniform Jackson wore while winning back-to-back SEC Player of the Year awards and earning consecutive consensus First-Team All-America selections for the Tigers, calling him “one of the greatest basketball talents I’ve ever been around and one of the greatest in college basketball history.”
Maybe the issue is that O’Neal knew Abdul-Rauf while, as he said, he doesn’t know Kaepernick. Or maybe Shaq’s views have just changed over the years; that can happen, even if you “enter onto the scene one way.”
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