When I saw the news clip showing Colin Kaepernick poised on one knee during the playing of the national anthem before an NFL football game, I immediately wanted to know more about him. As I listened to the furor that ensued and heard people hurl accusations of disrespect for the flag or the anthem or the country, I thought “You don’t understand; you’ve got it all wrong.” What Mr. Kaepernick was doing wasn’t simply political–athletes raising fists from the medal podium at the Olympics some years past was political. This was about some more nuanced and spiritual. My firm response came from a childhood where I was taught to kneel to speak with God and from my current Sunday practice of going down on my knees to express humility and respect for a force outside of and greater than myself. In Alabama, we always said some one assuming Mr. Kaepernick’s position was “taking a knee,” suggesting that the person was expressing a deep desire for healing and mercy and justice. Since the football game phenomenon came as police in this country kept killing young black men, I felt that Mr. Kaepernick was honoring their memories as he aligned himself with a system that did not judge some people as more expendable than others.
I’ve recently learned that Colin Kaepernick, the player who led the San Francisco 49ers to a significant victory in 2013 is not under contract with any NFL team for the coming season. Owners of those teams must be either too timid to act in their own best interests or they must agree with voices like those coming from the White House that think players who refuse to stand at attention in full sight of tens of thousands of spectators as the national anthem is played should consider not living here. And the NFL organization pretends it is giving players a choice in the up-coming season to participate in the opening moments or stay behind in the locker room. I can’t help but flash to moments in Birmingham, AL, in my youth (1940s-1960s) when blacks had to go to the back of a bus and often stand while many seats in the “white” section were unoccupied, or members of emerging rock bands could play a concert in a southern city but not be allowed to eat at a restaurant or sleep in a hotel after the event. I can only speculate about how it might feel to be a professional star athlete and be forced either to make oneself invisible or take part in something that goes against a deeply held and felt ethical/moral belief system. Surely this is not an attempt on the part of ownership to bind the wounds felt by the black players and their white allies who understand just how little black lives can matter even for people with huge financial contracts in hand.
As I wrote in an earlier blog about Super Bowl LII, football is not my favorite spectator sport, but what Mr. Kaepernick has caused me to think and feel will prompt me to tune in for the opening moments of some Sunday games. And I may choose to “take a knee” in my own TV room to be in solidarity with the players who feel so discounted by some owners and putative fans. After all, when any program from England plays “God Save the Queen,” I stand and sing all the words by heart. So why not make a tiny gesture to remind myself what the men who stay in their dressing rooms are about.