A Black Veteran Weighs in on Colin Kaepernick, The NFL, and Patriotism in America
The NFL Protest
Anyone who knows me quickly realizes I am a child of Chicago, a city that is home to some of the country’s most rabid sports fans. One of our most storied sports franchises is the Chicago Bears. I was once a rabid Bears fan, through thick and thin. But I haven’t watched an NFL game since 2016 season. That year, San Francisco 49ers star quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to use his influence and celebrity status to highlight police brutality in the United States.
It is no secret that black men and black women are impacted by unfair to downright violent treatment from police officers across the nation. This isn’t a “good cop, bad cop” situation. It’s a deep systematic problem rooted in white supremacy and the prison industrial complex. The punitive and oppressive treatment of black people in America harkens back to the days of slavery and continues to this very day, despite the tremendous progress made by black people in the United States. Colin Kaepernick consulted with a veteran and fellow NFL player, Nate Boyer, about the best way to protest racial injustice while still being respectful to the men and women who serve. He decided to take a knee.
“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”- Colin Kaepernick
Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players faced swift backlash for their protest. The tiny-handed current occupant of the White House has led the charge in the attack against NFL players and #BlackLivesMatter protesters. The same man who called Neo-Nazi’s “very fine people” has referred to black NFL players who kneel to end police brutality as “sons of bitches.” Critics have accused Kaepernick and other players of disrespecting veterans, the flag, and the national anthem. Even liberal NPR posted an article with this headline recently: NFL Players Renew Anthem Protests As Preseason Starts.
But the players are not protesting the anthem, veterans, or the flag.
They are protesting police brutality.
Others critics have stated that they should just shut up and play. They claim that sports are no place for politics. This is an argument dripping with irony given the fact the Department of Defense has paid millions to sports leagues to display faux patriotism. For example, many NFL games start with a flyover from Navy or Air Force fighter jets. Yet the players should just shut up and play?
As a result of his protest, Colin Kaepernick has not played an NFL game since the 2016 season ended. Despite being a once-celebrated athlete in his playing prime, he has not been picked up by any team. He has virtually been blacklisted from the National Football League.
A Veteran’s Take
When I joined the United States Navy in 2001, like every service member before and after me, I took the Oath of Enlistment. In that oath, we recite the following:
The stated oath means that as a service member, I swore to protect the Consitution. This includes the Bill of Rights, which are privileges afforded to every American citizen. It is the foundation of American democracy and the social contract. The First Amendment states the following:
“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.”
Thus, Kaepernick and his NFL colleagues have every right to protest continued racial injustice. Yes, Kaepernick and others are a privileged group of athletes who’ll make or have made far more money than the average joe could imagine. But they are also black men. They know that millions of men and women who look like them or their family members can be assaulted by the police at any time. What’s more, fame and fortune don’t protect black people from police brutality and harassment ( Just ask actor Ving Rhames ).
There are many veterans and military personnel with strong feelings about the NFL protest. I’m firmly in the veterans for Kaepernick camp. My opinion and views are not representative of every veteran in this country. But, as a veteran, I believe that all people should have the right to peaceful protest. Many men and women have fought, bled, and died for this essential right. Furthermore, as a black man in America, I know that we’ve made progress. But we have a long way to go before we can claim we are a fair and equal society for all people no matter their race, gender, sex, or creed.
If the critics of Kaepernick cared actually about veterans and military. Then they’d do more to enable veterans more straightforward access to the VA for mental health and medical services. Or end homelessness amongst veterans. Or fight to put an end to military sexual trauma, which disproportionally affects women in service. Or Congress would actually pay service members competitive wages on par with their civilian counterparts, ensuring that military families don’t have to be on food assistance.
At the end of the day, however, these critics, like many politicians, wrap themselves in the flag but do actual little to support veterans and military outside of hollow words. It seems both parties are more than happy to give kickbacks to defense contractors than actually addressing real issues impacting the military community.
I know the history books and time will look back kindly at Kaepernick. He’ll join the long list of men and women who risked fame, fortune, and material comfort to speak truth to power on behalf of the voiceless. Kaepernick, like countless others, stood and continues to stand up to injustice. I salute his efforts and sacrifice. Like Kaepernick, I want this to be a world where there is freedom, and justice is for all.