Wednesday, January 29, 2020
January 29, 2020: Sports and Politics: Kaepernick in Context
[If it’s Super Bowl week, it’s time for another SportsStudying series! This time on the fraught and contested, and not the slightest bit new, intersections between sports and politics. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the week’s posts or any related issues!]
On two ways the controversial quarterback’s protests extended a historical influence.
Although the presidential election of course sucked much of the oxygen out of any other news stories during the fall of 2016, one of the other most talked-about stories of that season was been San Francisco 49ers backup (although former Super Bowl starting) quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s #BlackLivesMatter-connected national anthem protests. In the course of his season of protesting, Kaepernick inspired similar protests across the league (and other sports leagues), sparred with a Supreme Court Justice (and even changed her perspective in the process, per that hyperlinked story), and produced numerous thinkpieces on whether he was contributing to apparently declining ratings and attendance for the NFL, among many other effects. But too much of the time, then and in the more than years since, journalistic stories on Kaepernick have focused on those 2016 questions and issues, rather than linking him and his protest to what seems to me (and other historians) its perfectly clear historical origin: the 1968 national anthem Black Power protest in Mexico City by U.S. Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos.
As is so often the case with history (see for example the collective embrace of Martin Luther King Jr., compared to the vitriol and hate he faced in his lifetime), the Mexico City protest has perhaps come to seem less controversial or divisive than was the case in its moment. As Smith and Carlos have amply testified, they were (and have continued to be for nearly four decades) on the receiving end of just as much racist, faux-patriotic nastiness in the aftermath of their protest as Kaepernick has been. Which, to be clear, they very much expected, and indeed was precisely the point of choosing both the Olympic stage overall and the potent symbolic moment of the national anthem specifically as the occasion for their protest. Similarly, Kaepernick has always made clear that he was and remains prepared for the consequences of his own anthem protest, and has—by donating a million dollars to activist organizations in the Bay Area—demonstrated his deep and ongoing commitment to the cultural and political causes for which he’s protesting. In those ways, Kaepernick’s protests can be seen as also paralleling the Black Panther Party—a source of controversy and division, but also an example of thoughtful and committed activism for and contributions to social justice efforts.
While the Mexico City protest and the Black Panther Party had a good deal in common, I would also differentiate them when it comes to audience. That is, the Black Panthers very overtly focused on addressing and engaging with fellow African Americans, while Smith and Carlos were seeking to reach a broader national (and even worldwide) audience with their message. Both kinds of activism are equally important and complement each other, so the difference isn’t a hierarchy in any sense; just another layer to analyzing these respective efforts. I would put Kaepernick’s protests in the “broader audience” category, and I have one particularly clear illustration of his effects on that level: my sons. While I talk about lots of AmericanStudies kinds of topics with the boys, I don’t believe we had yet talked about Kaepernick when, out of the blue, my older son told me that his 5th-grade chorus was practicing “America the Beautiful,” but that he had chosen not to sing, “just like Colin Kaepernick.” A few days later, he mentioned that he had decided not to say the Pledge of Allegiance during morning announcements; his teacher asked him to do so, but he resisted. For the three years since, both he and his brother have consistently knelt during the Pledge in their respective classrooms. With at least these two thoughtful young Americans, the influence and inspiration of Kaepernick’s historically grounded protests have been tangible and impressive.
Next sporting post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other sports and politics intersections you’d highlight?