San Francisco, CA – After Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem many Americans became unhinged at the thought of an NFL quarterback not showing gratitude or pledging allegiance to a flag and country that engages in illegal wars across the globe, while extrajudicially assassinating individuals domestically and abroad with utter impunity.
Kaepernick is a rarity amongst a sea of star athletes who rarely take such a public stand (no pun intended) on social issues, as they are too busy fighting for the almighty endorsement dollar and need to “protect their image.”
But the U.S. has a history of activist athletes who have taken a principled stand for what they believed in. This list includes the great Muhammad Ali, who refused to fight in the Vietnam War, and succinctly denoted the Vietnam war as “white people sending black people to fight yellow people to protect the country they stole from the red people.”
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big, powerful America, and shoot them. For what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They never put no dogs on me. They never robbed me of my nationality, or raped and killed my mother and father. … How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail,” Ali said in an interview shortly after his refusal to be inducted into the military in April 1967.
Ali said no to the draft. He refused to step forward to accept the legitimacy of the coerced registration, ultimately being convicted of felony draft resistance. When facing years in prison, Ali was resolute, insisting, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
Another pair of athletes that endured the scorn of an indoctrinated public was Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their black-gloved fists in a salute to “Black Power” at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. They did so, during the playing of “The Star-Bangled Banner,” while friend Peter Norman stood in solidarity with them.
In 1995, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf was a rising NBA star with the Denver Nuggets, but his career trajectory was forever altered after he refused to participate in the “nationalistic ritualism” of recognizing the flag and anthem. His NBA star quickly dimmed as he was essentially shunned by the league. In the wake of the public backlash to Kaepernick’s failure to stand for the anthem, Abdul Rauf expressed solidarity with the 49ers QB.
The sentiments Kaepernick expressed after the game against Green Bay revealed a very similar sentiment as that of his revolutionary athletic predecessors when he stated:
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.
To the surprise of many, Jackie Robinson, an icon of racial progress as the first African-American to play in the major leagues, in his 1972 autobiography, I Never Had It Made, discussed a poignant moment at which he realized that he could no longer “stand and sing the anthem,” nor “salute the flag.”
The iconic Robinson gave a damning indictment of America on charges of racism, classism, and bigotry:
There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. The air was sparkling. The sunlight was warm. 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. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. 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.
While many people have condemned Kaepernick for his stance, there is an American tradition of athletes using their platform to bring a message of social change to a larger audience. There is a similar thread that runs through each of the individual stands taken by the aforementioned athletes — in that they all stood up against oppression.
In 2014, NBA players LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Jarrett Jack, Alan Anderson, Deron Williams and Kevin Garnett and NFL players from the Rams and Browns all wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during warm-ups for a game to protest the police killing of Eric Garner in New York.
Whether you agree with the forms of protest used by these men, or their utilization of stardom to bring attention to a cause – the path to non-violent societal evolution directly intersects with the sentiments expressed by these athletes. They have all been willing to endanger their own marketability, and potential livelihood, for a cause they believe is greater than themselves.