In the sprawling, 10,000 word profile on NFL-quarterback-turned-social-activist Colin Kaepernick by Rembert Browne it was this sentence that stood out the most: “But right now, even and especially if you don’t care about the injury status of starting quarterbacks and the inexperience of their backups, you will realize that the least important important issue is Colin Kaepernick’s employment. This is bigger than him, which is something Colin seems to understand, but so many of us forget.”
We forget that this movement started with Kaepernick sitting on the bench. It was a Green Beret and former Seattle Seahawk named Nick Boyer who helped convince Kap to take a knee. “We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates,” Boyer said. “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.”
So the 49ers quarterback started to kneel and things got worse.
Americans are deeply divided on the symbology of kneeling before something these days. In Catholicism, genuflection is a substantial measure of one’s respect for God. But we’re jumbled up in America right now. Innocuous symbols have begun to divide themselves along party lines. President Trump has egged this on. It was he who goaded a crowd into a frenzy at rally in Greeley, Colo. with, “I don’t know if you know – the NFL is way down in their ratings. And you know why? Two reasons,” then Presidential nominee Trump said. “Number one is this politics, they’re finding, is a much rougher game than football, and more exciting. And this, honestly, we’ve taken a lot of people away from the NFL. And the other reason is Kaepernick. Kaepernick.”
In Catholicism, genuflection is a substantial measure of one’s respect for God. But we’re jumbled up in America right now. Innocuous symbols have begun to divide themselves along party lines.
If there’s anything the President is great at it’s taking a symbol of the fears of whiteness and projecting it onto one person. Once that person became Colin Kaepernick—once he became a petty political caricature like alleged welfare queen Linda Taylor—his original life was over. From then on, he was no longer a thoughtful American silently protesting what he deemed unfair treatment of people who looked like him. Rather unceremoniously, he became a hate monger. He was a Black man who did not know how good he had it. He was a character too familiar to white people everywhere but unfamiliar to most Black people: the hustler. The lazy, misguided, misinformed and unnecessarily cruel Black man stirring racial division.
So, for a second, let’s try to see Kap outside of the white gaze. He’s a person. An American. From a small town named Turlock in Northern California. His values are steadfast and honest. He is a once in a lifetime athlete for that town and for most towns. And, as far as I can tell, he wants police officers and prisons to stop shooting innocent Black people at traffic stops and on street corners. Think about the simplicity of that ask. Then zoom out and think about how America has never been able to stop doing that. And you will gain a perspective on how monumental his sacrifice is. He could have passed. Kept his mouth shut. Kept going. Earned his millions and lived his dream. But he didn’t.
So Colin Kaepernick shouldn’t need to ever don an NFL uniform again in this life. That league has proven that it does not deserve him. Whatever you’d like to say about the sport itself, that it is gladiatorial or amazing; that the level of skill, the condition your body must be in, the singular feats those athletes do on the field every week is remarkable. Whatever you want to say about it, their bodies fall apart faster than any other athlete in any other sport.There are no guaranteed contracts in the NFL. The lifespan of an average career is 3.3 years. And if sacrifice must be the measure of Black manhood in this age as it has been in all the others, then let that sacrifice be for his true calling: giving voice to the destruction of Black bodies by the state. It’s for those voiceless that he lost his job in the first place. And not only has he lost it, but he’s been forced to trade one America for another. For a biracial kid from a small town raised by two adopted white parents, that’s half an identity whether you like it or not.
As Du Bois said in “The Souls of Black Folks:”
“Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”
So it is no wonder that Colin Kaepernick has been quiet as kept. To everyone from NFL owners to Donald Trump’s real question of how it feels for him to be a problem? Here’s to them finding out by a cop thinking twice before he pulls a trigger on an unarmed Black person in America.