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.