Although I’ve turned-in my NFL fan-boy card (while retaining some harder-to-shake collegiate loyalties – here are goosebumps, some, uh, several years later), I’ve kept-up a bit with the Colin Kaepernick saga. He was in Reno at about the same time we were; he has an interesting personal background, and remarkable athletic gifts. I always anticipated that he might become a transcendent player – a proper heir to Steve Young, only bigger, stronger and faster (although truth-be-told, I also thought that about Vince Young).
But I didn’t think he would be transcendent in This particular way. By sitting on the bench for the National Anthem before two exhibition tilts, and taking a knee prior to the 49ers’ pre-season game with the Chargers in San Diego, Kaepernick has invited a firestorm of controversy over his actions and motives. He has stated that he wants to focus attention on America’s unmet promises to its minority citizens, and, to quote a former 49er great, boy howdy, has he succeeded!
For expressing himself and his concerns in this manner, he has been roundly derided as naïve, ill-informed and unpatriotic. He’s also been joined by a few others, lauded for his courage of conviction and financial contributions by none other than America’s favorite son Steph Curry – and his jersey sales have rocketed to near-the-top (no word whether they’ll be used more in honor or in effigy).
He is, of course, hardly the first to use his fame in support of a cause. Athletes have used their names, visages and actions in promotion for as long as those things have mattered. From Wheaties boxes to war bonds, to then-Bruce Jenner finishing the decathlon waving Old Glory in the bicentennial year, the athlete-as-influential-role-model has flourished in commercial uses and for popular ideals.
Athletes-in-protest-of-things also enjoys a rich and meaningful history. It’s said that an Irish long jumping medalist in an early Olympics shinnied up the flagpole to post his country’s flag, instead of the prescribed Union Jack.
Muhammad Ali’s 1966 refusal of draft induction in his fighting prime is perhaps the most famous example. It cost him his title and several of his best earning years in a matter that was eventually resolved in his favor by the US Supreme Court. Law mavens may enjoy this SCOTUSBLOG article on the subject. And the 1968 Mexico City Olympics may be recalled by tracksters as the site of Bob Beamon’s epic world record, but in the popular imagination Tommie Smith and John Carlos (and then-Lew Alcindor by his boycott absence) look much larger.
They are joined this year by an Ethiopian marathoner, whose finish-line solidarity gesture made him fear he’d become a target at-home. Other NFLers and NBA players, including LeBron James have signaled support for Black Lives matter as well, but no one has taken-on the pre-game Star Spangled Banner.
That’s worth a further digression – have national anthems always preceded sporting events, here and elsewhere? The answers are no – major sporting contests in other countries do not play those songs, and our tradition dates from a seventh-inning stretch during an otherwise desultory 1918 World Series contest between the Cubs and BoSox. World War I and a recent incident of domestic terrorism loomed and gloomed-over a largely silent, less-than-capacity crowd.
But then a military band struck-up the Anthem during The Stretch, the third baseman snapped to attention, other players followed and the crowd joined-in singing. MLB, sensing a hook, repeated the event, and it soon migrated to become a pre-game ritual. Other leagues piled-on, as wrapping oneself and the game in the flag is very, very good for the sports business.
The Super Bowl has taken this phenomenon past its logical conclusion, in what is, like most things about that league, a matter of wretched excess with ulterior economic motivation. That is not to claim that it’s entirely cynical, but to root this phenomenon in selfless patriotism and respect for the troops is to ignore the financial self-interest that truly underlies it.
So, what’s next? Kaepernick survived final roster cuts, and will be on the sideline as QB back-up for Monday night’s opener against the re-LA’d Rams. He’s demonstrated with his actions and his wallet (to the tune of a cool $Million) that he’s serious, so it seems unlikely that he’ll back away from his gesture of protest, any time soon. If he’s called into action, 49er fan reactions will be fascinating. Whether the protest spreads, and its ultimate impact on the player, the game, the league, and the issues the young QB cares about remain very open questions.
As they say in TV-land -- Stay tuned, there may be a reason to watch, after all!