Watching the Games in Black and White

The nascent NFL season finds more players performing the gesture that made a certain 49er a pariah.

More than four years have passed since Aug. 14, 2016.

No one expected much from the San Francisco 49ers that day. The stakes are always lower in the preseason, and besides, the team was coming off a string of bad seasons and still adjusting to a new stadium.

Perhaps that’s why no one paid much attention to quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was the only player on the field not standing for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In fact, it wouldn’t be until the third preseason game when someone — Steve Wyche, a Black man and reporter for NFL.com — finally took notice.

Wyche reported how Kaepernick sat in protest of the all-too-common occurrence of Black people being murdered by police. Kaep had spent the previous month speaking out on social media against the July killings of Alton Brown and Philando Castile; sitting for the anthem was the next step. Not much was expected to come of it, just as not much came from Detroit Piston Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf doing the same nearly 20 years prior.

But then something happened — two things in particular. First, the mainstream media picked up Wyche’s report. Second, Kaepernick spoke to military veteran Nate Boyer, who suggested the QB take a different approach. And so, when the anthem played before the fourth preseason game, Kaepernick got off the bench, stood next to his teammates, and knelt.

Now, the whole world was watching.

Fast-forward to 2020: NFL coaches are fined for not wearing masks during a pandemic; the League wonders if the next Super Bowl will play to an empty stadium; and only one of the three cops who unleashed a hail of bullets on Breonna Taylor will face repercussions. Not for illegally entering her home and killing her, but for “wanton endangerment [..] of Taylor’s neighbors.”

Over the past nine months, positive social justice has spread as fast as the novel coronavirus. Although corporate-sponsored virtue-signaling may be waning, professional athletes the world over have kept it up. Bent knees during the national anthem have become standard practice in the NFL, MLB, and the NBA — even the NHL is participating in the movement.

After more than a century of professional sports being out of touch with changing social mores, the tide has turned so much that even Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones — who, in 2018, infamously said his players would stand “toe to the line,” or else — has had to keep his trap shut about kneeling in the 2020 season.

But no matter how “woke” the players appear to be at this watershed moment in history, not all of the fans have evolved as evenly. A socially distant crowd jeered the Houston Texans as they held a pre-game moment of silence with their Kansas City opponents. Similarly, the notoriously right-wing fans of NASCAR — where standing for the anthem had been required and Confederate flag-waving had been, until recently, permitted (if not encouraged) — were not happy when the organization decided to ban the rebel flag and allow drivers to take a knee this summer.

Oh, the hilarious hypocrisy of these would-be defenders of the military boasting of support from a guy who dodged the draft and called veterans “losers.” In fact, it’s all the more hypocritical when one takes the Nate Boyer factor into account. Jingoists regard the US as an unbreakable monolith, but somehow suggest it’ll crumble to dust if it isn’t revered all day, every day until the end of time.

But still they parrot their mantras of intolerance: “Shut up and play!” “You’re paid to score points, not wave picket signs!” and, of course, “Keep politics out of sports!”

Oh, doesn’t that last one stick out like a sore thumb? We weren’t trying to keep politics out of sports when Joe Louis beat Max Schmeling in full view of Hitler. Or during the 1980 “Miracle on Ice.” Or when “great American” Joe Frazier beat draft-refusing Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title.

You seem to forget that, first and foremost, athletes are human beings and therefore have opinions (you don’t seem to get angry when Mike Ditka voices right-wing opinions); second, that sports and politics are inherently and inextricably entwined (especially with pro football), and finally, that any US sports fan who says they don’t want politics in sports is lying. No, seriously, they’re lying. Know how I know? Because if they were even remotely serious about it, they’d take that one simple-but-crucial step toward making American sports apolitical:

Don’t play the national anthem.

Yes, really.

The point of playing a national anthem before a sporting event is so that all the teams from opposing countries are represented. That’s why no other country in the world bothers with it when they have two teams from the same country facing off. Only the US fetishistizes its own iconography to the point that they’ve made the anthem a pre-sports staple since World War I.

Like almost everything in US history, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is pure propaganda. Its lyrics trumpet “freedom” despite the fact that its author, Francis Scott Key, was a slave-over who was called out for his hypocrisy in his own lifetime. It promotes the idea that America is great because we blow shit up real good, not because of the people who actually live, work, and create things here.

But like a child that knows the truth about Santa Claus, the US is supposed to have matured to the point where such nationalist fairy tales are obsolete and the ugly truth would be common knowledge (despite a sitting president who lashes out against diversity training). If you really “don’t want politics in sports,” dropping the anthem would be the perfect start. It won’t stop the athletes from making statements or taking stances (or the contrary when taking a knee), but it’s the only solution for someone who says they want it to be only about the game.

And that’s just it: white American sports fans who vehemently oppose kneeling for the anthem don’t actually want sports free of politics; they just want sports free of the difficult questions that come along with those politics. They want the only kneeling to come from Tim Tebow. They want the anthem to be presented by a lip-syncing Whitney Houston. They want conformity.

And you know what else is funny? It could be argued that pro athletes and teams doing the bare minimum of taking a knee is a form of conformity. Sure, NASCAR eliminated the Confederate flag and required anthem-standing, but when Bubba Wallace — their first full-time Black driver since 1971 — found a noose-shaped rope in his locker, NASCAR were actually the last to come to his rightful defense. And this new “woke” element of pro sports is still nowhere to be found in organizations like the UFC, where its Trump-supporting president Dana Owens openly tolerates racism from his white fighters.

Taking that into consideration, you’d be forgiven for not buying the new “SJW” claims of any athlete who isn’t Lebron James (possessed of the social conscience that so eluded Michael Jordan).

In fact, you know who else isn’t buying it? Colin Kaepernick.

For four years, the NFL’s most famous free agent has been kept away from the game he loves, save for an upcoming appearance in Madden NFL. When he and fellow protesting Niner Eric Reid knelt on the field, they committed career suicide in service of a worthy cause. So, when Kaepernick saw players kneeling before this season’s games, he lambasted the “propaganda” of the League of exploiting BLM as “they are still actively blackballing Eric Reid for fighting for the Black community.”

“Eric set 2 franchise records last year,” Kaepernick tweeted. “[A]nd is one of the best defensive players in the league.” Yet, neither he nor his former teammate can even meet with the NFL brass outside of a courtroom. Meanwhile, Trump-pal Tom Brady rakes in millions for screwing up a Super Bowl pass. (Thank you, Brandon Graham.)

And the police are still killing Black people.

Unlike 2016, all eyes were on the Niners when they started this season — and not just because they were last seen at this year’s Super Bowl. Their first game against the St. Louis Cardinals saw players on both sides wearing two kinds of masks: some just to protect from COVID; others to protect from toxic wildfire smog still choking most of California. Whether by instruction or happenstance of the previous game running long, the national anthem sequence wasn’t shown live on Fox Sports. When unaired footage was finally seen, it showed that only two Niners knelt as the rest stood. (The entire Cards line-up stayed in the locker room.)

The team’s slogan for this season is “Faithful to The Bay” (which some have interpreted as a shot at the now-Las Vegas Raiders). The Niners may be sticking around the Bay for now, but their supposed fidelity doesn’t extend to the two players who brought them the right kind of attention four years ago. They, of all teams, could have been the ones to lead by example and show the world what it means to embrace teammates and fans who do the right thing. Instead, both the Niners’ and the NFL’s claims of solidarity come off as lifeless as the cardboard audiences we’ve seen in broadcasts.

It’s great that Kaepernick’s protest has gained so much visibility that it’s now almost impossible to ignore. It’s great the act that got he and Eric Reid 86’d is now common practice. But it can’t stop there. Kaep, Reid, and similar protesting players need to be allowed back into the sport they love. Sports organizations need to stop punishing players for having valid opinions on matters outside of the game. And companies like the NFL need to use their massive influence and resources to bring about real change in regard to these issues.

In other words, it’s time for them to get off the bench.

Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist and arts critic. He’s online at TheThinkingMansIdiot.wordpress.com.

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