On Bended Knee: What Colin Kaepernick, Artists and Activists Have in Common

Colin Kaepernick national anthem protest - Pyragraph
Image by Peri Pakroo.

Pyragraph is a wonderful website because it’s a place for artists to talk to each other about art. But what is art, and for that matter, what is an artist? “Art” can be found in almost anything if a person looks hard enough, and in a similar way I believe we are all artists. Some of us claim that title more quickly than others, but what is art other than an expression of ideas? And don’t we all express ourselves, in one way or another?

As much as I identify as an artist, I also enjoy many other aspects of life. I was that weirdo in school who was in Drama Club and on the basketball team. A friend once referred to me as a “closet jock,” which I thought was funny. Sometimes I have to “come out” to my punk friends and admit that I go jogging twice a week, have a favorite hockey team, and am really excited for the new football season to be starting.

It’s up to artists to speak out when we see something wrong in the world.

One of the biggest stories in the NFL this year has been Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem. When asked about this decision he said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” This simple act of non-conformity has divided football fans across the country. While many people have applauded the courage it takes to stand up, or in this case sit down, for what you believe, many others feel his actions show a total lack of respect, not only for the flag and the military, but for the country itself.

The backlash against Kaepernick has come not only from former fans but from celebrities, sports commentators, and even the San Francisco police force, who have threatened their own counter-protest, even suggesting that they might not want to staff San Francisco 49ers games from now on. I guess “serve and protect” only applies to people who keep their opinions to themselves. Not too surprising is the fact that nearly every person denouncing Kaepernick’s actions is white. About the only white guy who seems to get it is comedian Bill Burr.

In a league full of rapists and criminals, Colin Kaepernick’s non-violent political protest has brought out more anger and criticism than any other current sports story. In fact, one of Kaepernick’s own teammates was cut from the team this week for getting drunk and beating up an old man, but is anyone ranting on Facebook about that?

Many critics have tried to say that Kaepernick is just an athlete, some guy who gets paid to throw a ball. Why in the world would anyone care about his political views? But people do care. Every major news outlet has run this story, from CNN to BBC. Kaepernick may not be a politician, but he is still a human being with an opinion, and more importantly he is an American with an opinion, and his high-profile pro athlete status means that a lot of people are going to pay attention to what he has to say. Even President Obama has been asked about it at recent press events.

The late, great Howard Zinn once wrote a short book titled, “Artists in Times of War.” In this book Zinn talks about the duty of artists to stand up to the corporate elite and fascist governments, because the people in power don’t mind going to war. They don’t care about social injustice, and they certainly don’t give a damn about systematic racism. It’s up to artists to speak out when we see something wrong in the world.

So again, I ask, what is art, and what makes a person an artist? If Kaepernick were a poet, he’d write, or if he were a painter, he’d paint. But he’s a football player. That’s the thing he loves and is passionate about, that is his expression and his art. Refusing to stand for the national anthem is his way of expressing himself. In a country that claims to be the “land of the free, and home of the brave,” we quickly test how free we are when someone decides to be brave.

But the thing about bravery is that it’s contagious. At the most recent preseason game, Kaepernick’s teammate, Eric Reid also took a knee during the opening anthem, as did Jeremy Lane from Seattle. The trend has also begun to spread to other sports, such as women’s soccer. Megan Rapinoe, a star player for the Seattle Reign, decided to kneel during the National Anthem before their soccer matches. As an openly gay woman, she has expressed solidarity with Kaepernick and shares concerns over the country’s policing. Her actions and potential protest so upset one of their opposing teams, the Washington Spirit, that their stadium elected to play the anthem before the players had entered the field, which would then prevent Rapinoe from protesting. Of course, it also prevents dozens of other players from standing for the anthem. By taking away the rights of the protestor, rights were also taken away from everyone else. Funny how it works like that, huh?

What the owner of the Washington Spirit failed to realize is that trying to suppress a person’s expression only brings it out all that much more. I don’t follow soccer, and didn’t hear about Rapinoe kneeling at a game, but the story became that much bigger at the next game when an entire franchise changed their game day scheduling to try and avoid controversy. This is not some trend that will just go away. My guess is that more and more players from more and more teams, from more and more sports, will begin using this as a means of expressing themselves.

Backlash was expected. Kaepernick knew he would lose fans. He lost a lot that first week, with people going so far as to post videos of themselves burning his jerseys. But now, as we enter the first week of the 2016 season, Kaepernick has the top-selling NFL jersey. Kaepernick, a second-string quarterback from a second-rate team has the top-selling jersey. Why is that? Because athletes become known by how they play, but they become heroes for how they behave. And in this information-overload world, we do care about what our heroes think.

People are upset with Kaepernick for not standing up during the National Anthem, but are they angry when police kill unarmed black men? Are they angry about America’s Secret War, or the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment? Where are our priorities as a country?

The real problem here is that we use entertainment as a way to avoid the problems of the real world. We go to movies to cheer ourselves up, we go watch a game after a long day of work. There’s nothing wrong with that, but at what point do these distractions completely steal away our revolution? It’s one thing to enjoy sports, it’s another thing to totally ignore the rest of the world. Kaepernick won’t let us do that, and in a weird way he has made football more important than it’s ever been.

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