Ever since pro football player Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers decided to protest racial injustice in America by kneeling during the national anthem, I’ve been asking myself why I’ve found his (and similar recent) actions so unimpressive, while remaining moved by the political actions of black athletes in the 1960s. And I’ve come to conclude that it’s not because I’m a fogeyish baby boomer who by definition believes everything was better back in the day.
I say this for two related reasons. But first, let me express agreement with those who have noted that Kaepernick’s gesture is completely protected by the First Amendment. Also, I’ve heard some arguments to the effect that athletes and other employees in many other industries routinely sign contracts holding them for public relations reasons to certain standards of behavior both on the job and off, and that as a result, the quarterback (voluntarily) surrendered some of his freedom of speech.
But both the 49ers and the National Football League deny that this has been the case. And although I’m not a lawyer (and don’t even play one on TV!), I doubt that it’s constitutional for employers to deny or even curb the free speech rights of their employees unless exercising them can be shown to either interfere significantly with carrying out their responsibilities, or significantly harm the company’s image.
Let’s get another matter out of the way, too. Although Kaepernick can’t be legitimately criticized for this, he and other football players pros who made national anthem protests can be knocked for timing last Sunday. I mean – on September 11? Seriously? The merits of the case aside, what could be likelier to forfeit public sympathy, especially among those not already with them?
But I would have been put off by the protests regardless of date – in contrast to my admiration for, say, Muhammad Ali and the two sprinters who bowed their heads and gave black power salutes when awarded medals at the 1968 Olympics.
The first reason has to do with the context. In the late 1960s, the involvement of athletes in politics was brand new, and taking non-mainstream stances was virtually unprecedented, especially for high profile performers. In fact, genuine courage was required – as made clear in Ali’s case when he was fined and suspended from pro boxing simply for conscientiously objecting to military service during the Vietnam War. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos had no opportunities to cash in on their triumph in Mexico City by running track professionally, but they paid significant personal prices, too.
Although Kaepernick et al have caught non-negligible flack, athlete and broader celebrity involvement in political and social issues has now become so routine that many causes use their Congressional testimony as core elements of their strategy. Even better, athletes and celebrities who take left-of-center positions can count on strong support from the country’s media and entertainment establishments.
My second reason for disquiet with the current generation of athletic and celebrity activists concerns the targeting of the national anthem. Actually, I have some sympathy for the view that patriotic displays have no place at sporting events, and that however traditional playing the anthem has become, the fabric of American life would remain fundamentally unchanged if the practice was ditched.
But here’s what matters more, as I see it. National anthem-like protests had more merit decades ago, when channels of protest, even for prominent individuals, were much fewer and further between simply because the media universe was so small. You had the three major commercial broadcast networks, along second-tier operations like Metromedia (essentially the ancestor of Fox). You had three national newspapers, three weekly newsmagazines, a few publications like Life and Look that didn’t deal with hard news controversies and opinion quite so consistently, and that was it. National syndicates did offer commentaries from the likes of Walter Lippman and Drew Pearson and the team of Evans and Novak. But the op-ed page didn’t exist until 1970. So if you hoped to reach broad audiences, and weren’t already world or nationally famous, you were for all intents and purposes out of luck. And this was also true if your renown came from a career not associated with journalism or public affairs.
Need I explicitly mention you that we’ve come an awfully long way since then? Indeed, we’ve come so long that unless you’re actively seeking to avoid them, there’s almost no escape from commentaries about political issues, and about controversial social and cultural issues. And in this environment, it seems reasonable to me to view an event like the playing of the national anthem as a valuable and constructive opportunity. It’s a chance to capitalize, on occasions when large numbers of us gather together in person, to affirm our common American identity in ways diametrically unlike the current smash-mouth style of most current politics and opinionizing.
As a result, although no one is legally obligated to stand or sing, those who decide to kneel or otherwise demonstrate at that moment strike me as at the very best off-putting, and at worst not so much unpatriotic as unreasonably hostile to acknowledging anything positive about the nation’s history and achievements. And I’d like to think that I’d take this stance even if the protest supported a cause I favored.
So here’s my plea to Kaepernick and other athletes moved to continue national anthem protests, for whatever reason: Given all the other powerful platforms you have to make your points, could you keep at least this particular ceremony a haven from the constant din of our ubiquitous public conversation? Americans today are anything but short of ways and means of expressing our disagreements and divisions, genuine and concocted. Questions of constitutional liberties aside, how about preserving at least one occasion for expressing our common bonds?