Colin Kaepernick And Our Collective Denial That Football Is (Already) Political

When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the “Star Spangled Banner” during a preseason game, he didn’t “bring politics into football.” Football – like most things in this country – has always been political. We’ve just spent an inordinate share of our lives trying to ignore it.

Following Kaepernick’s initial sit-down protest of the national anthem two weeks ago, he explained to NFL Media that he was “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” He went on by saying, “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.”

He also told reporters:

“This is not something that I am going to run by anybody. I am not looking for approval. 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.”

Less than a week later, Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem and was joined by a teammate, Eric Reid. Following that demonstration, he said, “Once again, I’m not anti-American,” Kaepernick said. “I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better. I think having these conversations helps everybody have a better understanding of where everybody is coming from.”

Clearly, Kaepernick possesses a keen awareness that, by standing and covering his heart during the anthem, he would inadvertently be condoning the injustices committed, perpetuated, and ignored by state actors. What’s more, that he had already associated these calls for justice with potential punishment in the form of a loss of endorsements (and therefore income) says two things: 1) participation in professional sports is more than just a career decision, and 2) players, like Kaepernick, are aware of their (often) passive participation in systems of oppression.

And, the playing of the national anthem before every game is just a small piece of this puzzle.

Football is not apolitical. Organized football started in the United States in 1869 between Rutgers and Princeton, two schools that didn’t admit Black students until the 1880s and World War II, respectively. The sport grew amongst Ivy League players and spread as wealthy sponsors used their financial influence to place bets and fund players. Historically, the sport has been rooted in commodification of young men’s labor by the wealthy. The patriotism part came later.

In a recent article at Vox, Zach Beauchamp notes that the playing of the national anthem before athletic competitions is not only unnecessarily ritualistic but it is also strange. The song was originally introduced to the athletic forum to instill patriotism during games and remind onlookers that the State had preserved their freedoms, ensured success in their wars, and protected them abroad (hypothetically). But, as Beauchamp points out, the song stayed even after the wars had ended.

He says, “Patriotism in professional sports isn’t actually about patriotism. It’s a pantomime, a performance designed to tap into Americans’ national pride without enhancing it. Playing the national anthem isn’t an honor for the nation in any meaningful sense; it’s turning the “Star-Spangled Banner” into an advertising jingle.”

He’s right. To a certain extent, playing the national anthem – a song that was written by Francis Scott Key in 1814 as a celebration that freed slaves were killed at Fort McHenry as they fought on behalf of the British forces – is an effort to instill a certain false pride in the flag. The song’s true origins are literally never shared as a celebration of American slavery.

Further, the emphasis on our ceremonial standing with our right-hands over our hearts implores so many in the United States not to question the performance of patriotism this requires. Essentially, the song is played to imply that sports in America are unquestionably patriotic, like they are a part of the way that citizens in this country express their pride in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.” So, isn’t this the perfect arena to also question those assumptions?

Beauchamp goes on to say, “Kaepernick’s critics are essentially saying it’s fine to use the national anthem to make money, but not to make a point about injustice. That seems like an utterly bizarre way of understanding patriotism.”

Perhaps this is the point so many have missed: It is both odd and hypocritical to reserve ritualistic performances of patriotism, like playing the national anthem before pretty much every organized sporting event in this country, only for zombie-like, uncritical, nonthinking agreement with this country’s greatness without allowing any room for thoughtful reflection from the very citizens who are participating in the act.

It isn’t just the anthem playing at sports events that subdues us into the false belief that America’s greatness is undeniable. It is the pledge of allegiance in classrooms that we learn before we can add or subtract, the garden flags on national holidays that signal our collectivity without any requirement of action on our parts, and the history lessons that cleverly remove events and people who don’t fit the narrative of performative patriotism. Often, those people are women, people of color, queer, or some other combination of not-American-enough to be made into a (s)hero. These processes of social conditioning often go without criticism.

So, no, this isn’t just about football. It also isn’t about the national anthem. It is about what Adam Serwer calls a “faustian bargain,” the idea that players should passively perform solidarity with an oppressive state all because they are collecting a paycheck. To expand this idea: it is the notion that fans should convince themselves that all they are watching is a couple of guys roughing each other up for fun. Both lies should make our skin crawl.

I have been critical in the past of what I call the “plantation-style athletic industrial complex” in the United States. This is a process where predominantly people of color, young Black men in particular, are indoctrinated and socialized to believe that professional sports associations like the NBA and NFL are viable and reliable mechanisms toward economic uplift even whilst these industries, in and of themselves, are exploitative of these young people’s labor. Kaepernick has succeeded in raising this critique to a national, even international, stage.

I guess the only questions that remain are: how will we (the collective “we” which includes franchise owners and operators) respond to the call for accountability Kaepernick presents? Will we also sit down for the national anthem? Will we critically engage with the ways that we, too, passively accept the thesis that America is undeniably great without requiring evidence to substantiate that claim?

I am overjoyed to see a high-profile, well-connected athlete using their status and influence collective thought on behalf of those with less access. I just hope that the America Kaepernick, and many of us, believe is achievable remains visible amidst all of our songs, signs, flags, and performances. And, that this vision not only becomes legible to many passive observers but that it emerges as the only viable option to ensure that our long history of systemic oppression is reckoned with through our collective action.


Photo Credit: Flickr/Brook Ward

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson is one half of the Water Cooler Convos team. She is a native of Oakland, CA, resided in sunny SoCal for a decade, and now lives in the Chicago suburbs. Bringing the bourgie and good measure of the nerdy, she fearlessly writes about politics, pop culture, and whatever other topics in black America have firmly planted a bee in her bonnet.