It's been weeks since San Francisco 49ers back up quarterback, Colin Kapernick, remained seated during the national anthem before an NFL game to protest the treatment of black people by police across our country. Kapernick explained his refusal to stand for the anthem by saying, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder." Since then all kinds of athletes have been kneeling during the national anthem: other NFL players, college football players, a female pro soccer player and even elementary age sports teams. Even my beloved KC Chiefs held a similar protest by locking arms together with cornerback Marcus Peters raising a black-gloved fist in the air.
I have to confess feeling more than just a bit cynical when pro athletes make political statements. I tend to think celebrities are a little too good at self-promotion to do anything really selfless. (Also, I confess having more than a little bias against Kapernick, for whom the 49ers dumped the now KC Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith. Now that I think about it, maybe I should thank Kapernick, otherwise the Chiefs could still have Matt Cassell playing QB.) My cynicism eroded however, when I read about Kapernick's efforts to explain his protest in the face of accusations he was ignorant, unpatriotic and just trying to get attention now that his career is fading. Many of the threats were racist and violent. My cynicism was fully wiped away when Kapernick committed to donate $1 million of his salary to aid groups helping people affected by racial inequality and police brutality.
I still wondered why I should care about Kapernick's protest. After all, it's just football, right?
I began to realize why Kapernick's protest and so many others matter when I was listening to my local sports radio show on 810 AM and they began discussing Black Lives Matter. I prepared myself to cringe at guys used to making fart jokes and rehashing football games trying to talk about the difficult topics of race and inequality. Surprisingly, the conversation was thoughtful and radio personalities of different ethnicities began sharing their different experiences with police and the criminal justice system. I was blown away by their candor and vulnerability. How many people listening--a huge percentage of them white men--had never had such a discussion?
I had a similar moment of surprise when the black newspaper reporter who covers the Chiefs for the KC Star took time during his podcast to talk about the protests. He pleaded with his largely white audience to have some empathy for black people's experiences with law enforcement. He begged them to consider that a white person's experience with the criminal justice system is likely vastly different from a black person's experience.
KC Chiefs wide receiver Chris Conley has emerged as an articulate voice in our city when it comes to these protests. Conley's father is career Air Force, and when he asked his father about the protest and whether or not it disrespected him and other veterans, his father replied that whether he likes it or not, he and other veterans fought so people could have the freedom to protest. Once again, I had to wonder how many people--maybe for the first time--were reading Conley's words and reflecting in a new way about the patriotic rituals before sports games and whether everyone shares the same freedoms to an equal amount.
I found new appreciation for all these athletes protesting when I read the remarks of University of Nebraska football player Michael Rose-Ivey explaining why he and other Cornhuskers protested:
"As everyone is aware, this past Saturday before the game against Northwestern DaiShon Neal, Mohamed Berry and myself kneeled in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and many other athletes across the country. Those professional and unprofessional who are standing together to use their various platforms to bring awareness about police brutality and the recent deaths of black men and women at the hands of police officers. While the anthem played, I prayed along with DaiShon and Mohamed. We asked God to watch over us and protect us, and to look down on this country with grace and mercy and to look down on all of us with grace and mercy. You see, we are not perfect beings. 2 Corinthians 3:5 says 'Not that we are sufficient in our own selves to claim anything as coming from us but sufficiency is from God.' As we looked at what has been going on in this country the injustice has been taken place primarily against people of color and we all realize there is a systematic problem in America that needs to be addressed. We felt it was our duty to step up and join the chorus of athletes in the NFL, WNBA, college and high school using their platforms to highlight these issues. We did this understanding the implications of these actions, but what we didn't expect was the enormous amount of racially hateful comments we received from friends, peers, fans, members of the media and others about the method of protest. While you may disagree with the method, these reactions to it further underscore the need for this protest and gives us just a small glimpse into the persistent problems of race in this country and the divisive mentality of some Americans. To make it clear, I am not anti-police, anti-military, nor anti-America. I love my country deeply and appreciate the freedoms it professes to afford me. I have travelled outside of the United States, I have seen how people live in other countries with my own eyes. And though I've endured hardships as a kid and didn't grow up with the whole world in the palm of my hands, as a conscious being, I am able to recognize that there are people out there who are in a much worse position than I am. I find it very concerning how some of my fellow Americans cannot do the same when it comes to these issues. Unfortunately, I cannot turn a blind eye to injustice. As Dr. King once said 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. The hottest place in hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict... (an individual) who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.' So therefore, I believe it is my job, first as a man of faith, which teaches me 'for what you do for the least of my brothers, you have done for me. And second brothers, you have done for me.' And second as a young black man, who sees people who look like me being unfairly treated, who do not have the platform to let others know about these injustices that go on every single day. I feel I am obligated to stand up and bring awareness to the social injustices that are not limited to police brutality but also to policies and laws that discriminate and hinder the growth opportunities of people of color, low income people, women, and other marginalized communities. Again, there are issues in this country that need to be addressed. There are issues in this country that can no longer be pushed off onto the backs of another generation. For me, I look at it like this: Do I want my kids to be a part of that and have to endure the same struggles that we do today? No I don't. So, it is my job to work to make this world a better place for the next generation. It is disheartening to see that the same social injustices that the likes of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Bob Marley, Tupac Shakur, Ghandi, WEB DuBois, Susan B. Anthony, Nelson Mandela, Thurgood Marshall, Maya Angelou, Jackie Robinson and Muhammed Ali amongst others have spoken out about since the birth of this nation. As a young black man, I cannot hide from these realities. As a child of the most high, I cannot hide from my responsibilities to be a voice for those who cannot speak loud enough to reach those who can help change their reality or the voices that continue to be ignored or muted. Those who are continuously told it is their fault that their problems exist, that only if they do better then they will have better. That if you just pull up your pants, etc. you can fulfill your own 'what if' but it's not so simple, it's not so clear. I can say that with confidence because even though I have done better, even though I am a college graduate, even though I am blessed and fortunate to play college football at the highest level and at one of the most prestigious schools in college football, even though I am a healthy being and even though I am fully conscious I have still endured racism. I am still referred to on Facebook and Twitter as a clueless, confused (expletive deleted), who by my former high school classmates, friends, peers, and even Husker fans. Some believe Daishon, Mohamed and myself should be kicked off of the team or suspended, some say we deserve to be lynched or shot just like the other black people that have died recently. Another believed that since we didn't want to stand for the anthem that we should be hung before the anthem for the next game. These are actual statements we received from fans. People assume this is just internet talk but I can tell you from my own experience at this very institution, at various other college campuses within the past four years that racism is still a problem that must be addressed. I can't tell you the numerous amount of times I've heard the "n-word" being shouted at my teammates and I from opposing fans behind our bench. My freshman year I remember going to a frat party and was told '(expletive deleted) weren't allowed in this house.' We were escorted out several minutes later by security officers. People want athletes like Daishon, Mohammad, and myself to remain silent and just play football. However, we cannot ignore what we've lived. We, as black athletes, cannot remain silent. We are fully aware that football consumes only a small part of our lives. As we are often reminded, football will not last forever. These issues are bigger than football. These issues are bigger than me. These issues are bigger than you. These issues are bigger than all of us because it impacts all of us, whether you believe it or not. We must have accountability, we must have understanding, we must have love, but we also must have genuine dialogue that finds genuine solutions and demands genuine action. We must demand that from ourselves, we must demand that from our family members, we must demand that from our friends, we must demand that from our schools, we must demand that from our police officers, we must demand that from everyone in this nation. That is everyone's role as a conscious human being. I believe that we are supposed to look for one another and call out the injustices in this world against the oppressed, even when you have nothing to gain and everything to lose. America is a great place, despite the ugly blemishes. I love that I am able to wake up and worship my God, without fear of persecution. I love that I am able to express my viewpoint and I am protected by Constitution of the United States. This is what makes America great. But I cannot also ignore those things that keep America divided. I believe in the promise of America, that all men are created equal, have the right to liberty, justice and equality but unfortunately America doesn't always live up to these ideals. So in the words of James Baldwin, 'I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.' It is my hope that in taking a knee, the consciousness of the entire nation will be raised and everyone will be challenged to truly come together and work towards fairness, equality and justice for all. We have an important role. We all have this responsibility. God Bless."
Rose-Ivey offers, I believe, the most articulate explanation as to why I should care about the protests of these athletes. Furthermore, the reaction he received for protesting only further explains why his actions are necessary. At the same press conference, he went on to describe how he and his teammates who protested received death threats, including ones saying they should be lynched or shot like other black people who have recently been killed or perhaps hung as the national anthem played before the next game. The hateful attacks on Rose-Ivey and his teammates demonstrate that we have a long way to go as a society and there are a whole lot of us who need to have more conversation about race.
Over the recent weeks I've been reminded that the athletic arena was one of the first visible forums in public life to demonstrate the excellence and abilities of black people. It has often been used as a platform for black athletes to protest against racism. Consider the actions of Muhammad Ali as well as the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Past actions were just as unpopular then as the current protests are now. Only in a sanitized version of history can we look back and see such actions as anything other than threatening to white people who are well-meaning and those who are not. Many voices wish to draw a distinction between the racism of the sixties versus our current situation and there is some validity to that point. Things have no doubt improved in many significant ways, but that is not an excuse for ignoring or erasing the experience of racism black people experience today.
These most recent protests point out the reality that the national story we tell ourselves is both true and untrue at the same time. The story that we are a great nation and our members of the military are righteous is true in the sense that we do enjoy many blessings of freedom and opportunity absent in other societies and our soldiers and veterans sacrifice greatly on behalf of our nation. Yet, this national story is also untrue in the sense that freedoms and opportunity are not equally available to all and for all our strengths as a nation we remain at best a work in progress. Our national story is untrue in the sense that often our displays of patriotism and flag waving and yes, singing of the national anthem are used as tools to shut out voices of dissent and silence the voices of the oppressed. There is no better way, perhaps, to demonstrate the truth and un-truth of our national story than by the images of the flag waving juxtaposed with black athletes kneeling in protest. The truth that our nation is great because of the freedoms it promises is just as true as the reality that we often fail to live up to those promises.
As Christians, we especially need to hear these voices of dissent even as we give thanks for the blessings we do have in this country. The testimony from scripture is clear that God hears the cries of the oppressed and the downtrodden--from the Israelites held in slavery in Egypt to Jesus on the cross to the cries of the Psalms. God stands with those who are beaten down by the ideologies of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and economic inequality. If we wish to experience God, we must go where God is speaking. God is speaking through the actions of the protestors, and yes that includes Colin Kapernick.
So I guess that I, as a white guy who just wants to watch some football, really should care why black athletes are protesting during the national anthem. Along with our rallying cry, "Are you ready for some football?" maybe we should also cry, "Are you ready for some social justice?"
Grace and Peace,