The NFL season starts Thursday night, without quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Whether Kaepernick should have a job is complex: While with the San Francisco 49ers last season, he became a lightning rod for controversy after kneeling as the national anthem was played. But it seems we often respond to such situations with hypocrisy. Whether we think athletes or entertainers have the right to say their piece often depends on how we feel about what they say.
Kaepernick knelt during the anthem because, in his words, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color . . . There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
The kneeling and the statement are why he has no job this year, not a lack of skill. It’s true Kaepernick is not the same player who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl five years ago, but he’s only 29, and had 16 passing touchdowns against four interceptions last season. He is better than most backups, and several starters.
The question is whether Kaepernick’s behavior is a legitimate reason to keep him off fields and a payroll. To me, it felt unfair because I don’t have a problem with his message. While I happily stand for the anthem and salute the flag, I don’t get to decide how a biracial athlete should protest racism. And the fact that he did it while on the clock and in uniform doesn’t mean much. It’s not as if he didn’t get his standing done for the boss because he was too busy with his own kneeling.
So athletes who speak out in ways that embarrass their employers should keep their jobs? Well . . . hmmm.
That’s certainly not what I thought about John Rocker.
In 1999, John Rocker was a pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, a closer who at times pitched very, very well. He became known for more than his arm when he explained to an interviewer why he’d never play for the Mets or the Yankees:
“Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing . . . The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?”
Rocker was suspended for 28 games, later reduced to 14.
Rocker supporters argued that the punishment, along with demands that he be thrown off the Braves and out of the league, violated his First Amendment rights. I wrote that while the Constitution gave him the right to speak, it did not protect his job in Major League Baseball.
I wrote the same when chef Paula Deen lost her TV show after admitting to racial epithets, and when Phil Robertson was suspended from “Duck Dynasty” for an anti-gay rant.
My instinct to stand up for Kaepernick but against Rocker and Deen and Robertson was hypocrisy. Sports teams and leagues and TV networks are businesses, and have the right to shun anyone whose statements impact the business.
The fact that I’d prefer a society where people weren’t angry at Kaepernick, and others would prefer a society where people weren’t angry at Rocker, Deen and Robertson, is quite beside the point.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.