If I learned nothing else in my four years as a Sooner, I discovered the immeasurable power of the athlete voice. Athletes of all levels have been given a priceless gift. It is rarely earned and all too often undeserved. Some use it responsibly, while others underestimate its reach.
Athletes have been given the gift of influence.
When athletes speak, the world listens. Such a capability leads to an enormous responsibility to use that influence to positively impact the rest of the world. Some athletes are oblivious to their own influence, while others are simply apathetic. A great many leverage this gift with their own personal convictions and effectively make a difference. Others intend to use their influence for positive action, but can’t seem to convey the right message through their methods.
In this last group, we find Colin Kaepernick. I admire his passion. I respect his willingness to make a stand for what he believes is right. I acknowledge his right to do and say as he pleases. But there is a better way. It is possible to make a stand against discrimination and injustice without disrespecting the men and women whose heroism and sacrifice are represented by the flag Kaepernick refuses to honor. The flag represents not just the men and women who have died for our freedom, but also the very ideals that are the bedrock of our identity. These principles are representative of what we aspire to be, though we can all agree that as a nation we often fall pathetically short of the ideals we strive to uphold.
First off, I must start by stating that racism and discrimination are legitimate problems in our country. I would not have taken on a leading role in the SAE situation if I did not believe this to be true. But a crucial piece of finding the solution is evaluating what we believe to be true about the problem. Many might say I’m blind and naïve, but I truly believe that a small minority of individuals are explicitly and consciously racist and ignorant. I do not buy into the narrative that one group is strategically and systematically seeking to oppress any other. But Kaepernick is right to some extent, because equality is not a reality for many Americans and racism does definitely exist.
But I think each and every American has to ask themselves an important question: Whose problem is it? Is it a black problem? A white problem? My problem? Their problem? I think all too often as human beings we are desperately seeking to subconsciously structure the world around us in order to make sense of it. We want to be able to clearly identify the heroes and the villains. We want to be able to say one side is clearly right and clearly wrong. But the real world doesn’t organize itself into clear blacks and whites (as ironic statement given the racial portion of the issue). There are heroes and villains on both “sides.” Both sides are right. Both sides are wrong. The real problem here is that we have sides in the first place! It’s not my problem, his problem, her problem, or their problem. It’s OUR problem. All of us. Black, White, Muslim, Christian, Gay, Straight, Rich, Poor. Rather than viewing ourselves as opponents or competing entities, what if we viewed racism and discrimination as conflict within a family? In a family, there is inevitably an enormous amount of conflict, but there is also an understanding that we are in this together. How would the discourse on racism and discrimination look different if we acknowledged that each of us have an unbreakable bond with the “opponent?” Regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation, we are all American. That’s what that flag represents, and that’s what Colin Kaepernick is failing to realize.
How do you identify yourself? In what order? I think the answer may prove to be very revealing. Am I white first and foremost? Or am I American?
When we identify ourselves with our nation before our race, we turn a Black/White problem into an American problem, and in doing so the parts become a whole, and we are truly the “Melting Pot” that we sought to be from the beginning, flawed as we may be.
We must all understand that this is not a quick fix. Ending discrimination and racism will be an arduous process. This fact is completely lost of Kaepernick, who states that he will not be standing for the pledge until he sees “significant change.” If that’s the case, he may never stand for the National Anthem for the rest of his football career! One thing that I learned through the SAE situation is that if you are advocating for change, that change must be specific, realistic, and measurable. If you fail to set rational goals within those parameters, you are crippling your cause and eliminating any chance you had to affect positive growth. There is no way to quantify “significant change”, and therefore Kaepernick has gone all in on a battle that he cannot win.
The most powerful statement any man can make for a cause is when he sacrifices his own self-interest in support of a greater good. In his refusal to honor the flag, Kaepernick has made no significant self-sacrifice. Public criticism is not a significant detriment. Though he may sit on the bench during the anthem, he will then rise up off that bench to play in a football game and collect his multi-million dollar paycheck. Contrast his lack of self-sacrifice to Pat Tillman, who sacrificed an NFL career, millions of dollars, his family, and ultimately his own life, so that Colin Kaepernick would have the right to sit on that bench.
Colin, I admire your passion and to some extent your courage. I respect your beliefs. But you can advocate equality and freedom without disrespecting those who died for it. When you chose to fight this battle against a symbol that is sacred to all Americans, regardless of race, you committed social suicide. It also probably wasn’t the best idea to then do the post-game interview in a shirt with Fidel Castro on it. Really not a great guy to endorse when you’re trying to make a stand about oppression.
In conclusion, I guess I should probably answer the question I started with.
When to stand for the National Anthem?