FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Todd Bowles said Colin Kaepernick “has that right” to sit down when the national anthem is played before a game. “That’s what this country is all about,” the Jets coach said. “They can do what they want.”
Sheldon Richardson chose not to address the issue. “I don’t care about that,” the defensive tackle said. “What’s going to change? Football questions only.”
Same with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. “I don’t care to comment on it.”
Nick Folk was indignant. “It’s not something I would ever do,” the kicker said. “I’m a patriot, no matter what.”
Leonard Williams didn’t have a problem with Kaepernick’s decision to sit. “Everyone has a right to say what they want or do what they want,” the second-year defensive tackle said.
In the wake of Kaepernick’s controversial decision to remain seated during the national anthem at Friday night’s 49ers-Packers preseason game, the reaction inside the Jets’ locker room was reflective of the collective reaction of the country at large. Understanding. Anger. Ambivalence.
Kaepernick joined other prominent athletes who over the years have decided to step into the debate about social problems, with the 49ers quarterback explaining that his disaffection with what he perceives to be an oppressive society toward African Americans is at the root of his decision. And like other sports figures before him who have used the platform of their celebrity to make political statements, Kaepernick’s decision has set off a national debate.
Kaepernick said he plans to continue to sit during the anthem, with his next demonstration to occur prior to the 49ers’ preseason game Thursday in San Diego. The reaction there is sure to draw attention and criticism, particularly because the area has a large military presence. Close to 100,000 uniformed military personnel are stationed in and around San Diego.
It is a complicated, emotional debate at a deeply polarizing time in our country, and while Kaepernick at one level can be commended for having the courage of his convictions, he has also understandably invited intense criticism for his show of protest. And while he pointed out Sunday that his argument is not with the military, he has nevertheless been harshly condemned by many who take offense, with their argument that show of disrespect for the anthem is necessarily disrespectful to those who have sacrificed for the country’s freedoms.
“It’s obviously something he believes in, but it’s not something I would ever do,” Folk said. “Any time the national anthem gets played, even if it’s on TV, I listen, especially on game day. I get chills. It’s part of the game-day celebration. It’s his belief. It’s what he feels at the moment.
“But it is the country that has afforded him quite a bit of money, afforded him his freedoms,” Folk said. “I won’t be sitting for the national anthem, but it’s his choice.”
Would he have a tough time if he had a teammate who wouldn’t stand for the anthem?
“Yeah, it would be tough . . . but that’s their belief,” he said. “That’s the hard part. It’s their feeling. It’s what they’re thinking that moment. I agree there are things that are going on that shouldn’t be, but until everyone decides to change, it’s hard for one person to make the change. The guys in this room, I think they all have a great deal of respect for the flag and for the U.S.”
Folk said other teammates “might feel similar” to Kaepernick about racial problems in America, “but I think they have a little more respect.”
Bowles, a former NFL safety and longtime assistant coach before becoming the Jets’ head coach in 2015, said he never played with anyone who had intense political beliefs, to the point where he felt the need to make any public pronouncements. But he doesn’t begrudge Kaepernick’s freedom to express himself.
“He has that right,” the coach said after his news briefing Monday afternoon. “Understand, a lot of people handle things differently. They have that right. People are fed up and they’re trying to get something done. That’s just one way he thought about doing it.”
Kaepernick is afforded the right to express himself, something that is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It reads as follows:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
It is one of the most important passages in our society, providing the underpinnings of free expression that Kaepernick chose. But with that right comes the right of others to disagree with the kind of vehemence and intensity as the resultant backlash against his action has shown.