With NFL brand at stake, fans will decide fate of Kaepernick’s sit-in
Parallel incidents that fall into the category of patriotism are roiling sensible Americans these days. As one who honors the idea of the United States even when it falls short of its ideals, I feel their pain.
In one, a mutlti-multi-million-dollar NFL quarterback refuses to stand for the national anthem. In the other, the school district surrounding Tallahassee, Fla., issues a form allowing parents (or other responsible adults) to excuse their youngsters from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
Blowback for both has been explosive and predictable. We are not amused. Former fans of the quarterback have posted videos of his souvenir jersey being torched in protest. A Facebook tirade about the school pledge policy first went viral, then garnered national media attention.
In the latter, the Leon County schools superintendent reversed the district’s policy and recalled the notices almost the moment he caught wind of the protest.
The quarterback, San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick, is less easily cowed.
Imagining himself the latter-day equivalent of sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith, whose raised, black-gloved fists during their medals ceremony became the iconic image of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, Kaepernick says he’ll maintain his sit-in until the nation fits his definition of guaranteeing “liberty [and] justice for all.”
“I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice,” he says, “people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and effect change.”
To be absolutely clear, Kaepernick has the right to sit when the rest of the world is standing. We acknowledge that much and more in our brilliant, sacred founding documents. For all his riches, status, comforts and fame — rewards that routinely elude the mixed-race products of broken homes everywhere else on the planet — Kaepernick’s protest is in keeping with American tradition. It might even be noble.
However honorable it might be, though, his demonstration is not doing the NFL any favors. Nor is the league’s puny response: “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the National Anthem.” Likewise, the 49ers issued a statement saying roughly the same thing. They wish he’d stand, but they’re not going to make a big deal about it if he doesn’t.
The league and the team might not. But fans are. That is their right, too. And so the tension builds.
Once a bright light in the NFL firmament, the darting, improvisational leader of a new breed of signal-caller who came within a single play of replicating the Super Bowl-winning magic of 49ers Hall-of-Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young, the 28-year-old Kaepernick is, four seasons later, in a battle just to make the roster.
Kaepernick staged his sit-down last Friday night, and at the time nobody quite knew why. Now we do. The team finishes its exhibition season in San Diego — a big Navy town — Friday. If Kaepernick does as he’s said he will do, I expect Chargers fans will sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the tops of their lungs, and then boo just as lustily whenever he takes the field.
Again and again, all the networks will run the footage. And the office of the commissioner will notice. There will be a meeting with the players’ association. The owner of the 49ers will get a call.
And someone will pointedly ask, as Head Coach Chip Kelly and his staff prepare to pare the roster for the start of the regular season, whether the storied franchise really needs to carry a backup quarterback who inspires such robust venom in fans who, at the league’s urging, have this idea that professional football embodies all that is great about America.
Listen, Tim Tebow — cut from athletic cloth similar to Kaepernick — was arguably cut for less. No coaching staff wanted a prayerful, scripture-quoting backup who divided fans so cleanly.
If Kaepernick makes the roster, some other arrangement will become necessary.
Leon County’s school superintendent solved his problem in an afternoon. Kids whose faith or philosophy auger against reciting the pledge can still refrain, but they need to bring a note from home; the district will not supply one.
Let’s be clear here, too: As captives of the government school system, in the rare circumstance in which objections arise, students have a right to opt out of the pledge tradition. Who wants a coerced pledge, anyhow?
The NFL, on the other hand, is a total opt-in arrangement. Players choose to play. Fans choose to watch. And the NFL has a brand to protect.
If Kaepernick hangs on, or is cut and lands, with his eight-figure salary, elsewhere, some sort of accommodation will have to be achieved.
A year ago, the NFL was embarrassed to discover it hadn’t negotiated a policy with the players union for running backs who throttle their future wives. Fans who disapproved of Ray Rice’s behavior made sure one was readily adopted.
Not that punching your fiancee in an elevator is on par with exercising your First Amendment rights. But widespread fan fury looks the same from a distance.
Expect an arrangement, then. Maybe the NFL will help the quarterback set up the “Colin Kaepernick Liberty & Justice For All Foundation,” and in exchange, having witnessed the generosity of his countrymen, Kaepernick will snap to attention for the national anthem.
Or maybe Kaepernick gets cut; no other franchise wants to risk the wrath of the commissioner’s office; the former golden lad collects his $11.9 million in guarantees and disappears; and the league works out a plan — for the good of the game — to fine, substantially, anyone who uses the NFL stage to make a political protest (we’re eyeballing you, too, Beyonce).
Everybody wins again.
Only one thing can’t happen. Kaepernick can’t ride the pine when the 49ers are playing, and also ride the pine during the national anthem.
We, the fans of the NFL, simply won’t have it.