At a football game on Aug. 26, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was met with immediate criticism when he refused to rise during the national anthem. Kaepernick later explained in an interview with NFL Media that he “was not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Rising for the national anthem at sporting events is one of those traditions that does not make a lot of sense, even in terms of its supposed purpose. Local sports teams may inspire religious levels of fervent devotion, but what exactly is it about football games that requires a widespread display of patriotism? Not rising during the national anthem, whether through concerted protest or absent-mindedness, is nearly always portrayed in the press as an anti-American slight. Just last summer during the 2016 Rio Olympics, gymnast Gabby Douglas was labeled anti-patriotic after she forgot to place her hand over her heart during the national anthem.
Obviously, no one can ever argue that Kaepernick is “breaking the law” or “not doing his job.” President Obama even opined, succinctly, that Kaepernick was simply “exercising his constitutional right” to free speech. It is also worth noting that several of Kaepernick’s teammates, including wide receiver Torrey Smith and quarterback Blaine Gabbert, have voiced support for his protest. Still, it is staggering that 72 percent of Americans (according to a recent poll by CBS Sports) disagree with Kaepernick’s protest on the grounds that it is unpatriotic.
This contention relies on a definition of patriotism that is blind and uncritical. It implies that protesting any aspect of the American judicial or political system is wrong because it is unpatriotic, and thereby takes issue with a Black man demanding better from his country – a country that routinely sanctions the murder of people like him. Refusing to be open to criticism of American culture or politics obviously precludes listening to a person of color who is engaging in a peaceful and reasonable protest.
Those who criticize Kaepernick on the grounds of his patriotism also reveal the hollowness of their own. Uncritical pride in one’s country is meaningless if there is a fundamental refusal to fix systems in that country that are broken. True pride in one’s country requires a belief that that country is capable of improving itself. It is possible to be “proud to be an American” while acknowledging that there are horrific injustices that still happen here every day. Frankly, if you refuse to do so, your patriotism means nothing.