With opening week just around the corner, I, like countless other NFL fans, block out my Sunday afternoons for the next five months. It’s a great time to bond with my kids, both still in grade school and football players. But now, with Colin Kaepernick’s conversation-sparking protest against American injustice reaching the San Francisco 49ers’ sidelines, the once hyper-patriotic bubble of pro football has been breached.
Thank you, Colin.
Following in the footsteps of other professional athletes who’ve criticized America — Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith and others — Kaepernick has done more than reignite the conversation on police brutality. By sitting on the bench instead of standing during the National Anthem, he’s shaken a hornet’s nest of racists and hypocrites.
It’s actually the perfect message for young football players who’re often taught only to conform and adhere to authority: You have to stand your ground even when it’s strenuous or uncomfortable. While Kaepernick may have thrown a lucrative sports career or endorsements down the drain, he’s a much better role model than athletes who prefer a paycheck to a backbone.
His critics are amplifying his message and proving his point. Social media is littered with comments from football fans calling him the N-word and demanding that he know his place. There are others who dislike what he did but respect his right to protest because to do otherwise would be un-American.
I’m reminded of former NFL player Pat Tillman, who became an Army ranger and was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. The U.S. government lied to his family and said he’d been killed in action, making him a poster boy for war propaganda. That’s America.
Should we ignore America’s long history of oppressing non-white people and attempts to silence civil rights leaders? It was just 50 years ago that the country debated equal voting rights and where blacks could sit on buses. We had to debate that. That’s America.
One of the worst parts of taking my family to a football game is the over-the-top militarism and the drunk, belligerent fans who eat it up. Comedian George Carlin once pointed out the not-so-subtle references to war: the “bullet passes,” the “long bomb” and the battles in the “trenches.”
Sometimes I just want to watch a game. But talking about unjust wars or long-term brain damage for players is impolite. Police killing unarmed black people is completely out of bounds. Let’s just salute the flag, wave at the F-16 fighter jets and cheer the collisions.
There has to be a better way.
In most cases, I don’t take my political cues from celebrities or athletes. However, Kaepernick is doing something special. He’s inspired a back-and- forth with my children that helps me water their critical thinking skills with the issues of the day. I can point to a professional athlete who isn’t relegated to his physical gifts, rather someone who has a brain and the courage of his convictions.
That’s worth the price of admission.
Josmar Trujillo is a trainer, writer and activist with the Coalition to End Broken Windows in New York City.