Colin Kaepernicks critics are ignoring the target of his protest | Bryan Armen Graham

By discussing whether the quarterbacks national anthem protest is unpatriotic, America is failing to confront police brutality, profiling and racial inequality

A few nights ago the University of Florida law professor Katheryn RussellBrown watched four commentators on ESPN debate Colin Kaepernicks refusal to stand for the United States national anthem. For several minutes the men argued about whether the San Francisco 49ers quarterback was right in using the anthem to shed a light on racial inequities in their country. They spoke of soldiers away at war, veterans who died and the meaning of the US constitution. The debate raged until Russell-Brown finally realised the one thing they had not discussed were the issues about which Kaepernick is protesting.

What happened to talking about police brutality, profiling and racial inequality, she wondered. Was not the whole reason he said he was not standing during the anthem to start a conversation about race in America?

This discussion, however, masks the fact that most of the negative responses to his protest are a reaction to the subject matter and the message of his dissent, not the form of his protest, Russell-Brown said. The people who object to his form of speech are really saying, I dont agree that these are nationally significant issues.

Doherty High School football player Michael Oppong was one of many to join Kaepernick in protest. Photograph: Steve Lanava/AP
Three weeks have passed since Kaepernick
first sat through the anthem before a Niners pre-season game and the national debate is more about his choice of protest than the issues it raised. Every day brings a fresh batch of stories about who is supporting Kaepernick by kneeling or sitting through the anthem and then each of those expressions of solidarity is washed through its own news cycle. There seems almost more discussion about the former quarterback Trent Dilfers suggestions that Kaepernick is not fulfilling some mythical duty as backup quarterback to be silent on all matters than there is about police shootings.

Critics have furthermore cloaked themselves in patriotism as a pretence to undermine Kaepernicks voice, brushing aside his actions as a selfserving stunt, either misguidedly or deliberately casting it as a protest against the military or, even worse, suggesting his personal fortune invalidates his perspective.

Is this really what Kaepernick had in mind when he said: Im going to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me this is something that has to change. When theres significant change and I feel that flag represents what its supposed to represent this country representing people the way that its supposed to.

Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and AfricanAmerican studies at Duke, said: I would argue that its by [Kaepernicks] design. The flag piece is a Trojan horse. The mainstream media never really has interest in these issues until it becomes a spectacle.

By shocking people with his anthem protest Kaepernick was getting everybodys attention, forcing people to confront the uncomfortable issues that many people have either ignored or never understood. The issue now, is how can Kaepernick and other athletes continue to push that conversation? Will it stagnate into a daily tally of Kaepernick supporters and dissenters or can there be a new level of athlete activism?

Over the years Neal has had many black athletes in his classes at Duke and he is always struck by how eloquent and thoughtful they are about race in their private work and also how reluctant they are to share those ideas in class. He senses that they have been conditioned through sports to think this way, trained by their coaches to shy away from any expressions that might detract from their athletic mission. But he also senses a new athlete activism, one started last fall when the University of Missouri football team struck in support of African-American students trying to change the universitys culture. The success Missouris players had in ousting the schools president has shown other athletes the power of their voices.

As the Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, who knelt during the anthem before his teams first regular-season game, wrote in a firstperson essay in the Denver Post: Now I have a tremendous platform, so when I do have conviction about these issues, I know the right thing to do to use it.

In addition to the Missouri protest athletes have been emboldened by basketball players like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, whose comment for the Guardian called on players to talk about social issues. But he also thinks Muhammad Alis death this summer awakened an awareness in many athletes. Until he died a lot of them did not know he refused to fight in the Vietnam War and was squeezed out of boxing for more than three years in the prime of his career because of it. Hearing of how he stood up to racial oppression opened their eyes. Many of them have started to ask, how will I be judged years from now? Neal said.

Things were different in the years after Ali first spoke about race. Black athletes were emboldened to protest in those days and often did. The former NBA star Marques Johnson, who now Milwaukee Bucks games on television, remembers that his college coach at UCLA, John Wooden, had the team stay in the locker room for the national anthem because he knew most of the players would not stand for the song.

We were aware of [the anthem author] Francis Scott Key being a racist, Johnson said. We knew about the missing third stanza that criticises the slaves who joined the British Army so they could be free. I think we were aware of all of that.

But something happened in the following years. The players who were moved to protest also saw how wealthy NBA stars were becoming. They noticed how Julius Erving, better known as Dr J, was celebrated for his clean-cut, corporate image and they wanted to be more like him. Their zeal for protest waned. Speaking out became a sin. Once, in the early 1980s, Johnson had become so tired of hearing the media complain that the NBA was losing popularity because it did not have enough white stars, he bought a Halloween mask of a white man that he was going to wear during warm-ups before a game. Eventually he lost his nerve. He worried that it would affect his contract negotiations.

Now he wonders if the current athletes have become so wealthy they feel empowered to speak out: Kaepernick, he notes, is well into a contract that guarantees him $60m.

Many of Kaepernicks critics extolled the virtues of Muhammad Ali in the wake of the boxers death. Photograph: Anonymous/AP

When you have that kind of financial clout behind you those are some pretty good chips to fall back on, he said. But a part of that is the more financially comfortable you are means you have the means to take a stand and address some social ills.

Whats most alarming is that many of the same voices who extolled Ali on his death in June are Kaepernicks most strident critics. The uncomfortable truth is Alis three-decade journey from White Americas most hated man to its most beloved coincided with the decline of his health. Only when he was infirm and ravaged by disease when he was no longer the threat to order that he was as the handsome and virile icon of unapologetic blackness and safely removed from the present was he embraced by broader society.

Martin Luther King wrote in his famous letter from Birmingham jail that it was not radicals or extremists who represented the greatest threat in the fight for justice but those whose pleas for order like those angrier at Kaepernicks actions than what it signifies derailed the struggle.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negros great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, he wrote, but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says I agree with you in the goal you seek but I cant agree with your methods of direct action; who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another mans freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a more convenient season.

Never have those words rung truer as the movement launched by Kaepernick struggles to take flight, nor has the mountaintop seemed further from reach. But if enough athletes continue to draw attention to the racial iniquities present in every strata in American life, they cannot be silenced forever.

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