Colin Kaepernick is no longer the star University of Nevada, Reno quarterback MVP of the 2008 Humanitarian Bowl who then led the San Francisco 49ers to the 2012 Super Bowl. He is relegated to a backup role with the 2016 49ers.
It is his refusal to stand up for the pregame national anthem that has catapulted Colin to a star role in spurring a national debate about the First Amendment, freedom of speech, professional sports, the U.S. military and police.
“The Star Spangled Banner” celebrates the British bombardment in the War of 1812 of Fort McHenry near Baltimore, which was so prolonged no one knew if the fort would survive until the next day, when “Our flag was still there.” The War of 1812 is the last time America was actually invaded by a foreign power. We were attacked in an attempt by Britain to either win us back as colonies, or sharply curtail our power to expand westward.
Colin has not been explicit about his protest but has linked it to Black Lives Matter by talking mostly about police brutality toward blacks. (Colin himself is of mixed race.) Many conservatives immediately accused him of being anti-military. Colin later said he was surprised that people would take it that way, and he assured us that his protest is not over the military.
Some point to the never-sung but controversial third stanza of the anthem. It contains the line, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”
Francis Scott Key wrote the “Star Spangled Banner” as a poem, then years later it was set to music and became our anthem. Key was, like many Americans of his time, a slaveholder. Classical liberal Britain was the leading global opponent of slavery, but not of its own enormous empire, in 1812.
Britain encouraged slaves to desert and join the fight against the Americans. At least 6,000 did, some of whom were engaged in the battle to take Fort McHenry as the “Corp of Colonial Marines.” Key may very well have celebrated America’s victory over the escaped slaves as a win for freedom. It is an historical fact that after the war America asked Britain to return its “property.” Britain refused, and the escaped slaves went to Canada and the Caribbean ,where they became known as “Mericans.”
But Colin has never said it is the song itself, but rather current events, that stirred him to protest.
Colin sometimes wears socks during team practices that portray cartoon images of police as pigs. To label any group collectively is a kind of discrimination that Colin himself should deplore.
But that is not to say that he is totally incorrect. The police in America are capable of great compassion, heroism and excellent performance in dangerous situations. They are also capable of great cruelty, cowardice and poor performances in non-dangerous situations. The policeman who delivers the baby of a woman in a cab could also be the policeman who rapes sex workers under threat of arrest. The police kill thousands of family dogs every year. They sometimes plant evidence and “testify” to get convictions. SWAT teams that were created for extreme hostage rescue situations are now used routinely to serve drug warrants. They are a threat to stop us and take our cash.
Colin’s nonspecific individual protest may turn out to be more valuable than organized groups with signs and agendas. We need a national discussion on race, police and crime. Colin has helped to jump-start that discussion. On his knee or on the bench, he deserves our appreciation.