On Friday night, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose not to stand as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played before his team’s preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. Kaepernick later explained that this was an act of protest against the oppression faced by black Americans and other people of color in the United States. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” he said, referring to high-profile incidents in which police officers have not been prosecuted for inappropriate uses of deadly force.
As you might imagine, Kaepernick has come under heavy attack. Here, from most to least incoherent, are the reasons critics have given for why they consider his protest reprehensible. I’ve also included Kaepernick’s responses to those criticisms, which he elucidated when he met with the press on Sunday.
7. What about black-on-black crime, though?
Stephen A. Smith, ladies and gentlemen. We’ve been over this one before, and thankfully no one has been dumb enough to ask Kaepernick about it. My God.
6. The troops.
The logic here is that American soldiers fight and die to defend your right to free speech (true!), therefore you must use those speech rights to praise the troops (not true), who are embodied by the flag, which represents the military (also not true). Kaepernick addressed this issue on Sunday: “I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. They fight for freedom. They fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that’s not happening. People are dying in vain [at home] because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up.” Later he added that “going back to the military thing, it’s a freedom that men and women that have fought for this country have given me—this opportunity—by the contributions they have made.”
Incidentally, according to his mother and service members who knew him, Pat Tillman—an NFL player who quit the league to fight in Afghanistan, where he was killed by friendly fire—was a Noam Chomsky reader who was critical of George W. Bush and felt the Iraq war was “illegal.”
5. He’s rich and therefore not himself oppressed.
Kaepernick explained Sunday that his protest “wasn’t for me. This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way.” He also said, “At this point, I’ve been blessed to be able to get this far and have the privilege of being in the NFL and making the kind of money I make and enjoy luxuries like that. But I can’t look in the mirror and see other people dying in the street that should have the same opportunities that I’ve had and say, you know what, I can live with myself.”
Finally, he added that “one of my roommates was moving out of a house in college and because we were the only black people in that neighborhood, the cops got called and all of us had guns drawn on us. I mean, came in the house without knocking, guns drawn, on one of my teammates and roommates. So I have experienced [mistreatment]. People close to me have experienced this.”
4. Black people in America actually have it great.
Fox Sports’ Clay Travis complained that Kaepernick had not cited any “specific issues” or described “tangible decisions” made by authority figures that “oppress black people and other people of color.” Travis also noted that the president of the United States and the head of the Justice Department are black, implying that those facts indicate black Americans are not discriminated against. And Travis wrote, “There is no systemic racism in our federal government. In fact, affirmative action is actually a governmental attempt to treat black people unequally—that is more favorably than other people—solely because of their race. If anything, the United States government’s laws discriminate in favor of black people based on their skin color.”
Contrary to Travis’ claim, Kaepernick did specifically refer, in his comments after the game on Friday, to the high-profile recent failures to prosecute officers who’d killed people of color. As he further noted Sunday, “The [U.S.] has elected a black president. But there are also things—a lot of things—that haven’t changed. There are a lot of issues that still haven’t been addressed. And that’s something over an eight-year term, there’s a lot of those things that are hard to change and there’s a lot of those things that he doesn’t necessarily have complete control over.” (Kaepernick might have added that highlighting and addressing “specific” and “tangible” discrimination against people of color has been one of the main priorities of the Obama/Holder/Lynch Justice Department.)
3. He doesn’t know enough about the issues, which are none of his business anyway.
Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock complained that vacuous Twitter sloganeering had fooled Kaepernick into believing that he was “Malcolm X,” adding that he was “deep down this Black Lives Matter rabbit hole and all this other stuff that has nothing to do with playing quarterback in the NFL.” Whitlock is an odd person to be lecturing others about humility and staying in one’s lane; he once created a manifesto for a website about “sports, race, and culture” in which aphorisms he’d made up himself were listed alongside actual famous things said by figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. Moreover, whether or not you agree with Kaepernick on the issues or his decision to highlight them by sitting out the anthem, I’d defy you to say he was poorly informed or hadn’t thought things through after reading the transcript of his Sunday press appearance. Reporter Tim Kawakami, who was there, wrote that Kaepernick “spoke for more than 18 minutes and obviously was more than eager to address this issue with every piece of thought that led to it.” (To be fair to Whitlock, Kaepernick’s Twitter feed does feature some hyperbolically over-woke retweets, and on Friday night he wore a T-shirt that featured photos of Fidel Castro, who the evidence indicates should probably not be considered a civil rights hero.)
2. He’s just doing this to get attention because he’s not good at football anymore.
Kaepernick struggled last season and will likely be the Niners’ second-string quarterback this season. In this reading, he’s conveniently discovered a social conscience to get himself back in the spotlight. I’m ranking this as the second-least-indefensible critique because the incentives here do exist; as a purely selfish matter, Kaepernick should maybe start to think about what he’s doing after the NFL, and the league does provide him a platform. However, the suggestion that he was protesting to get his name back in the headlines is undermined by the fact that he’d remained seated during previous preseason anthems, but it hadn’t become a story because no one had noticed. That doesn’t exactly scream “attention hog.”
1. Respecting the anthem and flag by standing represents an endorsement of the United States’ ideals, not of every one of its actions.
Oddly enough, this point was made best by a Twitter account that channels the spirit of late president Richard Nixon:
Kaepernick more or less addressed this argument: “To me, this is something that has to change and when there’s significant change, and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country—is representing the way that it’s supposed to—I’ll stand.”
That explanation—like the rest of what Kaepernick said on Friday and Sunday—makes sense, doesn’t it? We can debate the beliefs the quarterback espouses on Twitter and elsewhere, but if Kaepernick’s critics can’t come up with better material, then they’d be better served taking a seat on the bench.