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Kaepernick anthem row casts new light on racial inequality

ByTomas Meehan

Sep 20, 2016

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has found himself at the centre of controversy after he opted to kneel during the American national anthem before a week one NFL game coinciding with the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks.

In the NFL it is customary for players to stand when the national anthem is played, and as such, Kaepernick decided that he wanted to take a stand against what he described as, “a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour”.

The move by Kaepernick led to further protests from other NFL players making a stance against what they deemed as racial injustice in the US. 49ers quarterback, Kaepernick, was also joined by fellow teammate Eric Reid as they knelt for the national anthem.

Many other prominent NFL players subsequently followed Kaepernick’s lead in kneeling and putting hands in the air making the black power salute. Another player who wore a black glove and raised his fist aloft was Kansas City Chiefs’ cornerback Marcus Peters. This demonstration was inspired by the iconic image of 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos as they stood on the podium.

As a result of Kaepernick’s actions, a media frenzy has been generated, and he has been the recipient of both widespread support and criticism. Offering his support, President Obama suggested in a statement from China while at the G20 summit that: “Maybe some of his critics will start seeing that he has a point around certain concerns about justice and equality”, although he admitted, “I haven’t been paying close attention to it.”

Sales of Kaepernick’s jerseys have also skyrocketed, making his name the most popular choice for consumers of football shirts, as the player has also pledged one million dollars to charity. The story is now trending and it comes against the backdrop of the rise of the Black Lives Matter campaign, which lobbies against racism towards black Americans. Formed in 2012 after the killing of Trayvon Martin, which is argued to be racially motivated, Black Lives Matter have also been vocal against the treatment of blacks by law enforcement.

In the wake of Eric Garner’s death in 2014 at the hands of police, which was captured on video, NBA star LeBron James and many other players donned an “I can’t breathe” t-shirt, as Garner uttered the statement while being held in a prone position on the ground by police.

It would seem that America is still a country deeply divided by race and Kaepernick’s behaviour is reminiscent of that. However when asked, while rapper Lil Wayne respected Kaepernick for his decision he said: “God knows I’ve been blessed… I’ve never dealt with racism”.

Despite Kaepernick’s decision, he was condemned by ESPN pundit and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, saying that while he can sympathise with Kaepernick, he did not believe it was the right time to make such a gesture: “No matter how passionate you are, no matter how much of a burden you have for social issues, you don’t let it get in the way of the team”. In the past, athletes have faced disciplinary action for making such political statements in sport – namely the aforementioned Smith and Carlos – although it is unlikely that Kaepernick will be punished.

This is due to a statement issued by the NFL revealing that “players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the National Anthem”, thus backing up Obama’s point and legitimising the position taken by Kaepernick.

Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane also refused to stand for the national anthem, joining the San Francisco 49ers players who knelt, and Kaepernick’s initiative will no doubt continue to gain traction.

The amount of players choosing not to comply with NFL recommendations is still minuscule but it could call into question the significance of players standing for the national anthem for a mere football game.


Image courtesy of Chris Martin.

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