When we switched to a new website earlier this year, our online editor Samie Hartley tasked the columnists to come up with a brief summary about our series.
I came up with this: “In the search for nuances in a world of absolutes, his regularly occurring column ‘Other Side of the Fence’ attempts to bridge the gap between trending topics, social issues and their relationship with sports. Its one goal: critical thought.”
The most important part of that is “the search for nuances in a world of absolutes.” In this heavily polarized culture, those shades of gray are more important now than ever.
That brings me to the discussion surrounding 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
After Friday’s preseason loss to the Packers, we all became wise to his refusal to stand during the national anthem — something he has done in every preseason game.
His reasoning was pretty straightforward. He told NFL Media after the game that “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.”
Cue the firestorm.
Every type of opinion flooded our channels of connectivity whether it was TV, internet, mobile apps, social media or, of course, regular conversation. Kaepernick and his protest has been the prevailing topic ever since.
In my mind, there were three reactions.
There is the group that completely condemns what he did. There is no wiggle room when it comes to respecting “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The sacrifices of our military, the fame and financial success he’s had, etc., means there is no leeway for a possibly-non-starting quarterback to refuse to stand for the playing of the national anthem. Stay in your lane, stop being a misguided activist, and figure out why Blaine Gabbert might have your job in a few weeks.
The second stance — which is where I align — is that you can understand why he did it, but you don’t agree with the method.
“There are a lot things that are going on that are unjust,” Kaepernick said during a media session Sunday. “People aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for freedom, liberty and justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.”
Believe me when I tell you, Kaepernick, we get that. This summer, the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile sent waves through this country, leading to not only nationwide protests, but the killing of police officers during a march in Dallas. In the backdrop of the news that all charges had been dropped against the officers involved with the death of Freddie Gray, a Department of Justice investigation found Baltimore police operate with racial bias.
Those kinds of things are destabilizing to a country.
But the national anthem is one of the few unifying practices we have as Americans. We might disagree about everything under the sun, but we shed those principles for the two minutes we remove our hats to stand and honor the country that allows us to coexist with such differences.
Then there’s the group that unabashedly supports his decision to sit. He has a platform and speaks for those without a voice. This country is going through some tumultuous times — on numerous levels — and those with power are doing little to fix it.
The people in this category are dumbfounded why there’s even a debate about this, and don’t understand why he’s getting crucified for using his constitutional rights for the betterment of those ignored by this broken system.
The NFL said “players are encouraged but not required to stand.” The 49ers’ carefully-worded statement echoed that sentiment with a little more detail.
If you look at Kaepernick’s Twitter or Instagram, this protest should come as no surprise. He’s been outspoken about police brutality and the lack of justice or consequences for the officers involved in these countless cases. He’s become an avid reader of New York Daily News justice writer Shaun King, who is one of the loudest mainstream voices for the Black Lives Matter movement.
The only reason this is just becoming a story is because the preseason is really his first opportunity to step back into the spotlight where his thoughts and comments make the rounds on a daily basis.
He looks different. He sounds different. Kaepernick answered every question he faced Sunday with ease, demonstrating how well-informed he’s become on the issues he cares about.
“The fact that it has blown up like this, I think it’s a good thing. It brings awareness,” he said. “Everybody knows what’s going on and this sheds more light on it. Now, I think people are really talking about it. Having conversations about how to make change. What’s really going on this country. And we can move forward.”
This year we lost Muhammad Ali, who was the greatest activist the sports world has ever known. He took on the world in a harsher racial climate, and both inspired and mobilized countless people along the way.
Kaepernick is not Ali — and never will be — but his decision to sit during the anthem was Ali-esque.
And I think the most important discussion he’s started is the one we’re not paying attention to. It’s the purpose I wanted the “Other Side of the Fence” to have.
We are no longer living in a world of black and white, and to think we can generalize or categorize something so simply is naive. There might not necessarily be a right or wrong answer to the questions we ask, but something like sitting down during the national anthem creates a fascinating discussion to try and figure it out.
For the first time in a long time, I’m seeing people rationalize both sides before forming an opinion.
That, to me, is progress.