When San Francisco Quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel during the American national anthem, he unleashed a new debate that has uncovered old wounds and has sparked opinions from every walk of life in the United States.
The divisions fall along the lines of those who support his right to freedom of speech, and those who have seen the QB as a example of unpatriotic and insulting behaviour. Often the largest criticism of ‘the Kaepernick’ is that by not standing for the national anthem and the US flag he is insulting and disrespecting all those who fought and died for that flag.
The vocal majority comes from the expected right wing, nationalistic elements of the US political spectrum, but it digs deeper than that. It can be hard for us here in the UK to fully understand how passionately our American cousins hold their national pride. Such pride originates in 1775 and the American War of Independence and it burns as brightly today as it did on the battlefield at Yorktown. In the years since, many have stood for the ideals of the United States and many more have fallen. Every morning at school, American students take the pledge of allegiance saying ‘I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’, while facing the flag with a hand on their heart. We saw a glimpse of this passion in the Olympics and the outrage caused when US Olympian Gabby Douglas did not put her hand on her heart during the anthem. So when Colin Kaepernick took a stand with the Black Lives Matter movement and refused to stand for the anthem with the explanation of ‘I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color’, it unleashed this tidal wave of hate. Presidential nominee Donald Trump gave his response saying that it was a ‘terrible thing’ and that ‘maybe he should find a country that works better for him’. Perhaps the reason this protest has been so divisive is that it combines issues of race, individual freedoms and national pride.
However as mentioned earlier, the biggest argument against him is of insulting military personnel who have fought or died for the flag and anthem and deserve greater respect. Yet there has been great division of Kaepernick’s actions from those who have actually served and fought in the US military. The hashtag #VeteransForKaepernick has been trending at every football game since, and many have shown support for what he is protesting with taglines such as ‘I serve to protect your freedoms, not a song’. US Military personnel fight for the US constitution, and when I turn to my bookshelf and take my own copy of the Bill of Rights I read that the first amendment contains the words ‘the freedom of speech’. This idea is also supported by President Obama who said ‘[Kaepernick] is exercising his constitutional right to make a statement. Sometimes it’s messy, but that’s the way democracy works‘. This is where an element of contradiction enters the controversy. Kaepernick’s opponents say he disrespects what the flag and the anthem stand for, but if anything he is exercising a right that these national symbols DO stand for.
The controversy surrounding this debate came to a head when football games were played the weekend of the 9/11 anniversary, and once again Kaepernick (along with several coaches and fellow players including Denver Broncos Linebacker Brandon Marshall) did not stand. This led to an unusual figure to voice their opinion, Kate Upton. She took to instagram to say:
In my opinion, the national anthem is a symbolic song about our country. It represents honoring the many brave men and women who sacrifice and have sacrificed their lives each and every single day to protect our freedom.
Kneeling down during the national anthem is a disgrace to those people who have served and currently serve our country. [Doing so] on September 11th is even more horrific. Protest all you want and use social media all you want. However, during the nearly two minutes when that song is playing, I believe everyone should put their hands on their heart and be proud of our country for we are all truly blessed.
Yet this is exactly the point of Kaepernicks protest. He no longer sees the flag or anthem as representing a country he is proud of. He is instead exercising his personal rights and freedoms to comment on how he feels the nation is now treating people of his race and by proxy other races, and he has a valid point. Police violence towards African-Americans has only increased in the past 12 months. We have also seen an arguably openly racist candidate running for president with great success, and even with this protest we see divisions in what the flag, anthem and constitution really means. When these factors are combined with the freedom of speech doctrine enshrined in the first amendment of the US Bill of Rights, Kaepernick’s decisions to protest the anthem until action is taken to address the issues raised, and also to donate vast amounts to charities that help those affected by these events, are validated.
As Trevor Noah, host of the Daily Show, so brilliantly put, ‘Every time an athlete gets into a scandal there are loads of people saying ‘You are a role model. Use your fame to make a difference.” But as soon as one of them does they start saying “Shut up! We don’t pay you to think. Just play your silly game. What do you think you are, a Role Model?”‘.