Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, chose to deliberately sit while the National Anthem was played at the start of a preseason game on Friday.   After the game, he stated that he didn’t want to “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color….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.”

I have numerous, sometimes conflicting thoughts on this one, so bear with me…

First, kudos to him for taking a stand for something he believes in.   I’m not going to tackle  the validity of his statement on racial oppression.   Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if I agree with his position or not.  He is taking a principled stand on an issue he feels strongly about, an issue that he might be somewhat insulated from given his wealth and success, yet he is willing to risk at least some of that prosperity and popularity to make his point.

And I say that as someone who truly loves our National Anthem.   I get chills every time I hear it.   I get annoyed (and offended) when I see someone sitting, or leaving their hat on, or talking and laughing while it’s being played.  In college, I would take great umbrage at basketball games when students who were Baltimore Orioles fans, when the song says “Oh, say does that star spangled banner yet wave,” would emphasize the first syllable of the line and make an “O” with their arms. Such actions trivialize what to me is a solemn ritual that commemorates the spirit and resolve our nation has exhibited throughout our history.

So I understand the anger that Kaepernick’s protest evokes.  And I think choosing the National Anthem as the means to elevate the issue of civil rights winds up being counter-productive because the motive gets lost in the noise of the reaction to the act.   You can’t open people’s minds right after you’ve made them viscerally angry by disrespecting what they hold dear.  A far more effective use of sports celebrity status to raise awareness to the state of race relations in this country was the statement made by Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and Chris Paul during the cold open to the Espy broadcast in July.

But the anger is misplaced.  Kaepernick was not trivializing the anthem like those Orioles fans who annoyed me in college.  He is making a deliberate protest.  I found great irony in the articles this weekend touting how the New York Giants made a point to have every player and every staff member standing for the anthem during their game yesterday.   If what Kaepernick did by not standing is so unusual, so against the norm, why would it be such a big deal for ALL of the Giants to be standing yesterday?  Shouldn’t they be doing that EVERY game?  What the articles inherently imply is that during the anthem before a typical game, at least some players and staff are too busy or apathetic to stand.   How is that not worse than what Kaepernick did?

Ultimately, the symbol of our country is not a flag, or a song about a flag.  Neither of those things make our nation great.   Our freedoms make us who we are, and what better symbol of that freedom than a citizen taking a deliberate stand, no matter how unpopular?  The National Anthem is indeed a solemn ritual that commemorates our national spirit and resolve.  Not just our courage in war, but also our steadfastness in seeking solutions for our many great problems, including racial division and inequity.

Any and all opinions are solely my own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense.

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