Kaepernick’s Well-Intentioned but Ineffectual Protest

Image courtesy of Thearon W. Henderson of Getty Images.

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Say what you will about Donald Trump, but the man has an innate knack for finding and exploiting wedge issues in America. As detestable as he is, somehow, in some way, he always manages to capitalize on the most divisive issues in America for political gain.

The tactic isn’t new to politics; indeed, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush exploited racial fear as a wedge issue in the now-infamous 1988 Willie Horton ad. More recently, Republican political operative Karl Rove turned gay marriage into a wedge issue in 2004, helping George W. Bush get reelected.

But this weekend, Trump, as he has done time and time again, found another wedge issue: standing for the national anthem. Though a survey conducted by the Cato Institute found that over 60% Americans overall oppose firing players who refuse to stand for the national anthem – at odds with the President – nearly two-thirds of Republicans disagree. Additionally, a Reuters poll from last year found that 61% of respondents disagreed with Kaepernick, and 72% said his kneeling during the anthem was unpatriotic.

On an issue as divisive as this in a country as polarized as ours, is there any room for a nuanced position, or even just mutual understanding? Sportscaster Bob Costas attempted to find such a position on Friday night on Real Time with Bill Maher. On the one hand, he blasted the NFL owners’ blacklisting of Kaepernick:

“In effect, the owners collectively have told Colin Kaepernick to get the hell off the field, because he doesn’t have a team. Now, is he Tom Brady or Cam Newton? He’s not. But is he better than some starters in the league and many backups in the league? Of course he is.”

On the other hand, he also made clear that the issue isn’t as cut and dry as many make it out to be:

“The anthem doesn’t just represent the nation’s flaws or it doesn’t just represent the military or the police…it represents the nation’s ideals, as well. That’s what makes this a little bit complicated.”

And that’s where Costas hits the nail on the head. Clearly and incontestably, Kaepernick has the right to kneel during the national anthem, Trump’s buffoonery aside. But it fails to address the more important question: should he? Of course, the issue of police brutality is a pressing and important one. Kaepernick has even walked the walk and donated over $800,000 to charitable groups that stand up for low-income people, minorities, and veterans. Kaepernick has evidently done much for marginalized communities, and undoubtedly has a legal right to kneel.

Still, it’s important to ask whether the national anthem is an appropriate venue for voicing one’s concerns. Many on the left have quickly – and rather unfortunately – turned the man who has repeatedly defended his decision to abstain from the 2016 election into a martyr.

While Kaepernick’s concerns are valid, his actions have been ineffective and counterproductive. Rather than spark conversations about police brutality – his original intent for kneeling – his actions have sparked discussions of whether kneeling during the national anthem is appropriate or not, or whether he should have a job in the NFL or not.

There are certainly other ways to draw awareness to the issue of police brutality. In 2014, Lebron James and other NBA players wore shirts donning the phrase “I Can’t Breathe” while warming up before the game, a reference to Eric Garner’s death at the hands of the NYPD. While no method is ever completely immune from criticism – James himself was criticized by some for his form of protest – some methods are certainly more effective than others, especially in today’s age of social media. The reality is that Kaepernick has – by no ill intention of his – made the conversation about himself and his actions. Perhaps having your jersey hung up in the MoMA is not the best way to spark a conversation about police brutality.

Furthermore, it’s understandable why kneeling during the national anthem may be seen as offensive. To so many Americans, the American flag is not just a piece of cloth, but a potent symbol integral to their lives. The flag is something they grew up pledging allegiance to, something that their families sacrificed their lives for, something with a quasi-religious status. To them, the Stars and Stripes are illustrative of America’s founding principles of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, and those who have fought to preserve those principles. It’s why after the September 11th attacks, 80% of Americans said they were flying it. So when Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem, are we really that surprised that so many took it as an affront to their sacred symbol?

Though Kaepernick – and those who have followed – certainly meant no disrespect through his actions, and there are numerous Americans who support him, he ought to have known that his protest would be counterproductive. Certainly the American flag means different things to different people, and many have perfectly valid reasons in their minds as to why kneeling is not just appropriate, but necessary. But the tactic is simply ineffectual. Indeed, when then-NBA star Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem back in 1995, it led to little more than nationwide backlash and his eventual ostracization from the league.

Colin Kaepernick, noble and just as his cause is, is not the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Arthur Ashe. Considering him their heir does a disservice not only to those like Abdul-Jabbar and Ashe who fought valiantly for justice, equality, and America’s unfulfilled ideals, but to current athletes like Lebron James and Stephen Curry who fight to make the world a better place without ending up at the center of attention – intentionally or not.

Regardless of where you stand on this issue, the discussion of the meaning of the American flag and national anthem is one that must be had. Is kneeling during the national anthem an effective way to produce change in America? Even if it is, is it morally permissible? How can we reconcile America’s unfulfilled ideals and shortcomings with patriotism and love of country? These are questions that need to be addressed, ideally without resorting to labeling anyone who disagrees with Kaepernick a white supremacist or hysterically burning NFL memorabilia. At this time, unity and reconciliation are more important than ever.


While Siddharth Srivatsan is the managing editor of The Daily Gazette, his views may not necessarily represent those of the editorial board.

Featured image courtesy of Thearon W. Henderson of Getty Images.

Siddharth Srivatsan

Sid is a sophomore from Ashburn, Virginia (NoVA!) planning on double majoring in Mathematics and Economics. He enjoys backpacking, and DJ’s a radio show on WSRN-FM. You can probably catch him watching Law & Order or reading The Economist.


  1. I dunno, the players got Twitler to piss off a majority of the electorate again, that’s gotta be worth something. And I think a corporate enterprise as bloated and powerful as the NFL will be fine.

    Besides, this is a clear-cut First Amendment case. The players aren’t hurting anyone, they aren’t threatening to hurt anyone or screaming about wanting to murder an entire religion, so there’s no hate speech question like you have with Nazis. So why are the NFL players being condemned and why are Breitbart and other shitty rags saying we should shut them up but have to tolerate Nazis? Fuck that shit.

    A WW2 vet, ninety-seven years old, took a knee to support the protests because he fought and saw friends die to protect our right to peaceful protest, only for the President to attack it on a daily basis on Twitter from the safety of the White House. Trump, per his usual, is attacking the roots of our society out of petty dickishness, and we shouldn’t tolerate him. Because it’s not “free speech” if your definition of “free speech” is “I can say all the Nazi bullshit I want without consequences but anyone else can’t say anything against the things I like because I’m a special snowflake and I can’t leave my safe space without crying swastika tears as the evul SJWs yell at my fragile Nazi self!” That’s not free speech, that’s “The only speech that is allowed is that which Nazis approve of”, which is kind of the OPPOSITE of free speech.

    For fuck’s sake, people, this is America! We used to hail people who KILLED Nazis as heroes, the Nazis are the go-to example of soulless evil in our society, /how did they suddenly become mainstream/?

  2. Let’s not kid ourselves about Colin Kapernick’s ‘noble’ reasons, shall we? From the Business Insider Sept. 10, 2017. “After leading the San Francisco 49ers to consecutive NFC championship games and one Super Bowl, Colin Kaepernick was rewarded with a “record” seven-year, $126 million contract in 2014.

    But after three seasons of declining production, including one season of headlines surrounding his protest of the national anthem, we got to see that the contract was not nearly as big as everybody made it out to be at the time.

    In the end, Kaepernick received $39.4 million from the deal, or about 31% of the total most people touted.” “Each year of the contract after the first, the 49ers were free to cut Kaepernick and not owe him any more money.

    To make matters worse, Kaepernick was supposed to get his first large salary ($12.4 million) during the 2015 season. However, because of the way the contract was worded, that salary actually went down to $10.4 million. Kaepernick’s salary went down $2 million each year if he was not named first- or second-team All-Pro, or if the 49ers didn’t play in the Super Bowl the previous season with 80% of the snaps taken by Kaepernick. None of those things happened.”

    That is the reason Mr. Kaepernick decided to kneel during the National Anthem, job security. Let’s look at his 2015 stats:He played in 9 games, starting 8 of them. He completed 144 passes on 244 attempts, while that was close to his average completion percentage, the yardage gained plummeted to just over 1600 yards from the 3600+ yards a year before. His touchdown/int took a hit as well being 6 touch/5 int. And the most telling thing the win – loss for the 8 games he started was 2-6.

    He knew he was on his way out the door, so what is one of the few things that could stop that from happening? Make sure that the public would think he was being removed over something political like protesting. I’m not saying it was completely calculated, more that it was opportunistic, to use something like what Tommy Smith and John Carlos’s Black power salute during the Olympics in 1968 and turn it into something during the National Anthem. As he knew it would be grabbed onto by the media, it would ensure that, at least for 2016, he would not be released because of the perceived motivation behind his release would look political and not merit(or lack thereof) based.

    That is also why the rest of the league won’t touch him. Not because of his actual protest, but because he jobbed the 49ers and the NFL. He used our ‘ready to condemn anything at a drop of a hat’ PC+SJW mentality to ensure he got his 8 figure salary and got to become a martyr to SJW’s across the nation. So can we please drop the halo hanging over Kaepernick’s head. And maybe give that halo to one of the Dallas police officers who gave their lives protecting those who hate them from bullets aimed at the police from another hater.

    • Hi Lydia,

      Thanks for posting that video. I actually agree with everything he says. I’m not arguing that Kaep is disrespecting the flag or that I personally take offense to what he’s doing, and I think his reasons for kneeling are totally valid. There are definitely people who use the flag as an excuse to cover up their racism. Having said that, I think it’s possible to agree with Kaep’s concerns while still thinking the national anthem is not the appropriate vehicle for voicing those concerns. Considering over two-thirds of Americans think its inappropriate to kneel during the national anthem, I don’t think 200 million Americans are closet racists. As I said, I’m not arguing that it isn’t the appropriate vehicle for those concerns. I’m simply saying there are a whole lot of Americans who believe that, and what Kaep did was counterproductive because it turned off people who would have otherwise agreed and supported him.

      Siddharth Srivatsan ’20
      Managing Editor

    • Hi Lydia,

      While Siddharth wrote “Managing Editor” under his post, I want to clarify that this article certainly does not reflect the editorial board’s views; all of us have a wide range of opinions on this issue! A well-researched op-ed will come out tomorrow along with many voices on the matter at hand, including information used from your very informative video! Thank you! Much love!

      Lindsey Norward ’18
      Arts and Features Editor

  3. All should read Eric Reid’s op ed in the NYT about his and Colin’s decision to kneel, instead of just speculating. Also, I think it’s wrong to say that this protest hasn’t opened up dialogue about police brutality nationwide– protesting publicly and respectfully during the NFL is a powerful tool that brings this kind of discourse to a much wider audience than you really seem to address in this piece. I see no evidence and fundamentally disagree with the notion that his protest has been “counterproductive”. And finally, I think it’s a huge stretch to argue that this was a good platform for Trump- the NFL has decidedly NOT sided with him on this issue and the subsequent actions of owners and players have presented themselves as strongly in opposition to the president.

    • Hi,

      Thanks for your comment. While I agree that his protest drew nationwide attention, other players have drawn attention to these issues (Lebron James, Richard Sherman, etc.) without drawing the kind of ire than Kaep has. The reason I say his protest has been counterproductive is because it turned off a lot of people who would have otherwise supported and agreed with him. It is possible to both recognize and agree with his reasons for kneeling, while still thinking the anthem isn’t the appropriate vehicle for those concerns, and I think the polls show that. The reason I use the word “ineffectual” is because although his protest has sparked discussions, they haven’t been about what he wanted them to be about – police brutality. I also do think this has been good for Trump in terms of shoring up his base and finding another wedge issue to polarize Americans – something that the polls show as well.

      Siddharth Srivatsan ’20
      Managing Editor

  4. So…shame on the author and shame on Swarthmore college for allowing this work to be published under your banner. While the author notes that CK is protesting for historic and current ‘police brutality’, he does not once mention the other half of the protest – ‘against black, brown and indigenous people in the US’. Without even a nod to historic intentional extermination of native people for the acquisition of land and our “humble” chattel slavery beginnings for economic gain for white settler/colonists, this author plays the well-worn ‘model minority’ card. A shill for white supremacy without even mentioning, let alone discussing, Blackness, anti-Blackness, and the birth of Whiteness to legitimize the former two.

    And I’m not surprised that this is how neo-liberal higher education institutions like Swarthmore keep believing in ‘helping poor backwards people’ rather than engaging in economic justice measures and bolstering self-determination efforts of systematically marginalized people.

    • I don’t see how the author of this piece has given us any reason to think he’s a “shill” for white supremacy. They’ve been abundantly clear that they don’t believe in the way minorities in the US are treated, and are simply suggesting, in respectful and considerate language, that this particular form of protest isn’t helping us very much. They may be right or wrong, but if our instinct is to attack Swarthmore for publishing this piece and branding the author an apologist for racism just because he forgot to include half of a quote, then something is very wrong indeed with the progressive movement we are trying to produce. Don’t waste your time attacking people who you believe don’t go far enough. We have bigger things to worry about, like actually convincing society to take the mass action needed for lasting social change.

    • I dislike your suggestion that anyone whose opinion you believe doesn’t “align with Swarthmore’s ideals” should not be allowed to publish their opinion in a Swarthmore publication. Obviously, and I want to emphasize this bit, no one touting racism/anti-semitism/homophobia/etc. should be allowed to publish their opinion in a campus publication. However, if a person is kindly and respectfully sharing an opinion about the means of protest, they should feel free and safe to do so. This is especially true when, like this article, the author does not disagree with the reasoning behind the protest.

      To summarize, as long as a person’s opinion is not purposely inflammatory or promoting hatred and violence, they should not be kept from publishing their opinion, whether the campus, or the organization they are publishing under, agrees with them or not.

  5. “Considering him their heir does a disservice not only to those like Abdul-Jabbar and Ashe who fought valiantly for justice, equality, and America’s unfulfilled ideals, but to current athletes like Lebron James and Stephen Curry who fight to make the world a better place without ending up at the center of attention – intentionally or not. ”

    How are you supposed to make anyone reconsider their opinion or even just think about an issue without bringing the issue to the center of attention?

  6. This column was actually quite mild and balanced. If you go out and talk to people who are not in the liberal bubble you will find that a very large segment, maybe the majority, of people think that the anthem is the wrong venue for this sort of protest. It looks to them as if the protest, no matter how valid it might be in itself, is connected to disrespecting the flag.

    Now, you can disagree and cite the NFL network to the contrary, but that does not change the perception of millions of people. Suppose a White House reporter didn’t agree with some action of the Obama administration, and so refused to stand when the president entered the room, when everyone else did. Would you pro-Kaepernick folks accept his explanation that he was not disrespecting the president, only the administration’s actions? I don’t think you would.

    • “Suppose a White House reporter didn’t agree with some action of the Obama administration, and so refused to stand when the president entered the room, when everyone else did. Would you pro-Kaepernick folks accept his explanation that he was not disrespecting the president, only the administration’s actions? ”


      The President doesn’t deserve my respect just because he got chosen as our leader by a majority of the electoral college. The President has to earn my respect by not being a flaming asshole and dumbass incompetent Nazi-lover like Trump is.

  7. As others said before, this seems to be just a way to disrepect the flag and the US. No one should do that, and that is the reason Donald Trump can benefit from such stupidity.

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