We live in the Great Age of “What makes you think I care what you think?”
Maybe it’s a Twitter thing. Social media allows everyone not only to express his opinion, but to instantly second-guess others’ opinions. I’m amused when someone’s view of whether Bené Benwikere is best used at nickel back devolves into a charade of cussing and petty insults. Troll Nation.
So when something more serious occurs – certainly San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s form of social protest qualifies – the same rules of engagement apply.
My first instinct, when I saw him sitting out the national anthem weeks ago, was to roll my eyes. I spent a week around Kaepernick before the 49ers played the Carolina Panthers in the 2013 playoffs. I found him abrupt, thin-skinned and combative toward reporters asking generally benign questions. In short, he was a jerk.
The more I thought about this, the more I came to admire Kaepernick’s recent stance. He has nothing to personally gain from raising social-justice issues. He’s become a target for scorn from many in our country, and he appears to accept that as a fair cost of raising awareness.
He’s gotten the nation’s attention. Isn’t that the point of protest?
So Sunday, when Kaepernick takes a knee at Bank of America Stadium rather than stands in salute during the national anthem, I’ll view it as an act of courage. We can all choose to edit whether this was his best route to an end, but you can’t doubt his conviction.
You know who endorses that view? The son of a soldier, who feels a deep devotion to country and flag.
“You know my stance on it,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Thursday. “It’s about my upbringing. I also understand that this country is based on specific freedoms.”
Those freedoms include the right to free speech. Kaepernick is saying his America feels different from others’ – that many African-Americans feel more in danger of street violence and might see police more as a threat than a source of protection.
Protesting two Americas
It’s silly that Kaepernick wears socks depicting pigs in police hats. But I haven’t had his life experiences.
You can’t say what LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony did at the ESPYs – an impassioned call for change – was admirable, and then not tolerate Kaepernick’s reaction. Call him tone-deaf, but don’t say he lacks for a calling.
“He’s a great guy, personally – a brother of mine,” said Panthers wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., a former teammate of Kaepernick’s with the 49ers.
“There are a lot of people around here who feel a certain way about certain things in life. It’s about how you go about it and how you say it.”
It’s understandable most professional athletes would enter such forums cautiously. We’re talking about relatively short careers and endorsement deals contingent on perception. But even in Charlotte we’ve seen some level of social protest.
In 2014, the Charlotte Hornets joined a handful of other NBA teams, warming up for a home game wearing “I can’t breathe” T-shirts, addressing the choking death of a New York man the previous summer.
More recently, Hornets point guard Kemba Walker wrote an essay for the Players Tribune on street violence and social justice.
“It just had to be said. There are so many things going on in this world that are unbelievable. A lot of gun violence and police brutality,” Walker told me last month.
“I have that platform now. People will read things I put out and I (wanted others to know) I’ve got hope.”
The platform, and choice
The key word is “platform.” Athletic achievement conveys celebrity and celebrity provides a forum.
It’s up to each individual whether and how to use that forum. Hornets owner Michael Jordan made matching $1 million contributions to an NAACP legal defense fund and a community-policing institute. In contrast, Kaepernick rattled some people to get their attention.
Protest is never about diplomacy. Also, it’s nothing new among athletes. Tommie Smith and John Carlos clenching their fists in a black power salute during a medals ceremony at the 1968 Olympics was at least as controversial as anything Kaepernick has done. Societally, we have short memories.
It’s your right to think what Kaepernick is doing makes him a jerk.
But you can’t deny he made you think.