SAN DIEGO-By most accounts, the modern athlete don’t go around making noise about social issues. They know the consequences if they do. The endorsement money will dry up. Sponsorship money will disappear. Backlash will become their best friend. They are to play ball, shut their mouths and get paid.
Their social activism is not wanted.
Today’s athlete know they could end up being blacklisted the way Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos were after they demonstrated their famous Black Power Salute in 1968. The know if they make a peep about anything, they could be ostracized the way WNBA players have been after their on-court demonstrations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Athletes know they could wind up being labeled a pariah the way Muhammad Ali was after he spoke out about America’s institutionalized racism after he refused to be inducted (based on religion) into the country’s military draft.
Or they could wind up being widely assailed the way San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been since his sit down and kneel stance during the playing of the national anthem. It can get ugly. For Kaepernick, it’s worth all the insults hurled his way if the conversation about justice for all is fully activated.
“The dream result would be equality, justice for everybody,” Kaepernick said after starting the first half of the 49ers’ 31-21 preseason finale win against the San Diego Chargers. “This is really something about human rights; it’s about the people. This isn’t about anything other than that. Some people aren’t given the same rights, aren’t given the same opportunities as others, and that’s really what the issue is.”
Being attacked is what happens when you have a dissenting voice to the norm when you’re an athlete. If you just happen to be a black athlete or a person of color with the audacity to speak out against societal injustices the way Kaepernick has, the ugliness of racism know no boundaries to the vile hatred coming your way.
The right to free speech suddenly turns into un-American and anti-police criticism if you happen to be a black athlete lending your voice in addressing police brutality and the country’s unbalanced criminal justice system.
In return, law enforcement offers threats of a boycott to sporting events because these athletes actually have the nerve to voice their opinion.
All this in the name of democracy. This scene has played itself out before. Freedom of expression for the black athlete means a public death sentence when they speak out of turn. They’re celebrated for talking about cancer awareness and bringing attention to sexual assault and domestic violence.
But if they daringly speak out against racism or the oppression of minorities, the way Kaepernick has done, they can look forward to facing swift condemnation.
“The media painted this as I’m anti-American and anti-men and women of the military. That’s not the case at all,”said Kaepernick. “I realize that men and women of the military go out and sacrifice their lives and put their selves in harm’s way for my freedom of speech and my freedoms in this country and my freedom to take a seat or take a knee. So I have the utmost respect for them. I think what I did was taken out of context and spun a different way.”
It wasn’t but about a half-century ago, African Americans speaking out against Jim Crow and all of its segregated ways meant the thrashing of water hoses, police dogs, cross-burnings, intimidation and the end of a rope. America is in the same place today, but in a different sphere.
Race is as much of an issue today as it was then. The only difference is that the platforms have changed. The venues have now moved from the cotton fields to the corporate boardrooms. On a night when the Chargers hosted its annual Salute to the Military celebration, all eyes were locked in on Kaepernick, who received rounds of boos for his on-field protest.
The message does not stray too far from the messenger. If the booming Afro doesn’t get your immediate attention, the emphatic stance against racial oppression will. Sounds like a page from from the Black Panthers Party and the uptick of the Civil Rights Movement.
Kaepernick walked into the press conference underneath Qualcomm Stadium after his team’s win against the Chargers, fully equipped to handle the bombardment of questions aimed his way by reporters for his actions on the sidelines.
Instead of having the onus put on what players will or will not make the 53-man roster for either team, the center of attention rained down on a quarterback who once came less than 10 yards of winning the Super Bowl. Kaepernick has just about everyone paying attention to him these days.
That includes the White House, celebrities, fellow athletes and even presidential candidates. So instead of being rattled like maybe after a blindside hit by a linebacker, Kaepernick fielded question after question with the poise and eloquence of a press secretary.
The noise that has mounted around Kaepernick lately has had to do more about his unveiled social consciousness rather than his play on the field.
“We have cops that are murdering people,” Kaepernick said. “We have cops in the SFPD (San Francisco Police Department) that are blatantly racist. And those issues need to be addressed. I have an uncle, I have friends who are cops; I have great respect for them because they’re doing it for the right reason and they genuinely want to protect and help people. That’s not the case with all cops. And the cops that are murdering people, and are racist, are putting other cops in danger, like my family, like my friends. That’s an issue that needs to be addressed.”
The demonstration of protest is a powerful tool to broker change. A protest provokes conversation. It moves the conscious. It gets people to think. It motivates. It certainly brings out a wave of emotions. Fear can be added into that equation. You might want to throw in a dash of outrage as well.
That’s because Kaepernick’s boldness to call out the racial oppression of African Americans and other minorities by using the international platform of the NFL, has pissed off quite a few people.
Upsetting the apple cart in the form of a protest is nothing new in this country. It is patriotic. It is what has made America the country it is today.
The people who organized the Montgomery Buss Boycott didn’t wait to get approval to effectively shut down the Alabama city’s public transportation system for over a year. The youth movement that fueled the Freedom Riders was not predicated on receiving an OK letter from those who embraced Jim Crow segregation laws.
The Greensboro Four weren’t sitting around twiddling their fingers hoping people would applaud their right to quietly protest service at the “whites only” counter. There still may not be any blacks in baseball if Branch Rickey didn’t have the vision to introduce the Noble Experiment of Jackie Robinson to the masses.
There is precedent for what Kaepernick has done and will continue to do. Athletes using their platform to generate attention to social causes has been done many times over.
The Silent Gesture by Smith and Carlos at the podium of the 1968 Olympics brought on hometown fury. They were labeled as traitors. Ali basically made enemies within his own country when he defied going into the military draft.
In more recent times, NBA star LeBron James and his former Miami Heat teammates wore hoodies in an instagram post as a tribute Trayvon Martin, the black youth slain by a neighborhood watchman. The Mike Brown calamity that took place in Ferguson, Missouri, saw then St. Louis Rams players come out of the game introduction tunnel with their hands up as a tribute to the young man black man who was shot and killed by a police officer.
What happened in Ferguson turned out to be the catalyst of the Black Lives Matter movement that Kaepernick appears to embrace.
Remember when Jackie Smith’s dropped touchdown pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super XIII made him the “Sickest Man in America?” You can turn that phrase on its head by illuminating that Kaepernick has now replaced Smith as the “Most Hated Man in America.”
Judging by his comments during the lengthy press conference, Kaepernick does not sound like a man too worried about that. He’s on a mission to hit the speed dial on criminal justice reform and the many social injustices causing harm in minority communities.
His public stir may have caused him to lose the short-term battle of winning the starting quarterback job at the start 2016 NFL season. But the fact that Kaepernick has the needle pointed in the right direction in getting the conversation of social change on everyone’s tongue, may help him win this longtime war.
“We have a lot issues in this country that we need to deal with,” Kaepernick said. “We have a lot of people who are oppressed. We have a lot of people that aren’t treated equally, are given equal opportunities. Police brutality is a huge thing that needs to be addressed. There are a lot of issues that need to be talked about and need to be brought to life. We need to fix those things.”