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Sports, Racial Justice and Colin Kaepernick

Sep. 6, 2016
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Photo via Brook Ward, Flickr CC


I’ve always been a funny kind of sports fan. I’m a passionate homer for the Brewers and Packers, but I can’t help admiring outstanding opposing athletes even when they beat us. 

When Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers knocked Green Bay out of the playoffs in 2012 and set an NFL single-game record of 181 rushing yards by a quarterback, I was more impressed than crushed. And sorry to see Kaepernick lose to the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl.

As a Milwaukeean, I also took hometown pride in Kaepernick’s meteoric early success even though the connection was fleeting. 

Kaepernick, who is biracial, was born to a single, white mother in Milwaukee who gave him up for adoption after five days to a family in Fond du Lac. Kaepernick lived there until age 4, when his family moved to California.

That didn’t stop Milwaukee sportswriters from proudly making the hometown connection during the two great seasons that won Kaepernick a six-year contract extension in 2014 worth up to $126 million.

Local sportswriters haven’t mentioned that connection lately or said much at all since Kaepernick has stirred national controversy by beginning a symbolic protest in support of racial justice in America.

After the 49ers pre-season game with the Packers, Kaepernick explained why he’s decided not to stand this season during the pre-game playing of the national anthem: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” 

Kaepernick says he has friends and family who have fought for that flag. When he can feel the flag represents what America’s supposed to, he’ll stand. 

You can imagine how that’s gone over with the usual bozos who call sports talk shows. His jerseys are now being publicly burned.

The nation’s leading political bozo also weighed in. Donald Trump says maybe Kaepernick “should find a country that works better for him.”

Unless Trump becomes president and suspends the Constitution, Kaepernick’s citizenship isn’t endangered. But he’s already knowingly risking a lot. 

Great Athletes Protested Racism

As his success has been diminished by injuries and multiple surgeries, Kaepernick begins the season as a backup quarterback. If San Francisco cuts him, other teams likely would avoid him as a toxic distraction. He’s probably already forfeited millions of dollars in commercial endorsements. 

That’s why so few star athletes take political stands. But some of the greatest athletes of all time have supported Kaepernick.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who spent his first six seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks and brought the city its only NBA championship, wrote in The Washington Post that Kaepernick has “behaved in a highly patriotic manner that should make all Americans proud.”

Abdul-Jabbar traced the modern era of athletic protest to 1967, when Muhammad Ali, like Abdul-Jabbar a convert to Islam, refused to be drafted to go to Vietnam and fight other people of color.

The next year, in the 1968 Olympics, African American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in black power salutes during their medal ceremony to protest U.S. treatment of blacks.

Abdul-Jabbar said Americans shouldn’t be horrified by Kaepernick’s sitting during the national anthem, “but that nearly 50 years after Ali was banned from boxing for his stance and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.” 

Kaepernick is not the first African American athlete to have mixed feelings about the national anthem. Another was Jackie Robinson, now celebrated as one of the greatest black athletes in our nation’s history for breaking the color line in Major League Baseball. 

That may surprise many people who remember Robinson as a black Republican. He was, until he became an independent to protest Richard Nixon’s pursuit of white, racist opponents of civil rights in a Republican strategy that continues today. 

In his 1972 autobiography, Robinson described his feelings during the Brooklyn Dodgers’ first game of the 1947 World Series.

“The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. . . .

“As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

The fight for racial justice continues today in Milwaukee and across the country. Milwaukee should be proud to have a native son standing up for what America should be, simply by sitting down.  

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