Before anything else, I am white. So my frame of reference will always be steeped in white privilege—I cannot, and will not, pretend to speak for the black community, as I have no right to do so. In police encounters, I am let off with a warning; at work, I expect that my opinion will matter; most characters on television or movies will look like me, and share a similar worldview; the small, unnoticed (by me) pieces of the puzzle that make up institutionalized racism.
Furthermore, I am well-educated, having attended one of the top graduate schools in the United States. I have worked hard all of my life in a variety of jobs—from gas jockey to development consultant—and have always prided myself on that work ethic. And no one can question my patriotism—I have served this country in three very unique roles in three diverse locations. No one can take any of that away from me. Because I am white. Everything that shaped me and makes me a unique human being is very quickly stripped away if I were a black man or woman. I would be called on to answer generalities based off my race, the decisions I made would be questioned, the few encounters with the police I had as a young man could have ended very differently. Because of my whiteness, I am secure, and the generalizations made about me rarely include the tinge of racism: He must have worked hard to get accepted into graduate school vs. affirmative action? He keeps changing jobs because he’s chasing a particular dream vs. he just can’t hold down a job. Oh, he must have been very deferential to that police officer to get out of the speeding ticket vs. he shouldn’t have been resisting arrest (wait, for a speeding ticket?!)
Which brings me to Kap. I’ve watched Kap much of his career—I’ll never forget Kap standing tall at Mackay, the air frozen in that particular Sierra Nevada way, never giving up against Boise (I don’t think any Nevada fan will!)—and I loved when my team, the Niners, took a gamble on the running quarterback. I was in a cold tent in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province for the 2011 post-season run, watching AFN’s re-showing of the NFC championship, after making sure the guys didn’t tell me a thing. For the incredibly strange 2012 Super Bowl, in between near-beers, I screamed at the television with the few other Brits interested in football right before a patrol into claustrophobic city of Gereshk. I drunkenly and disbelievingly watched my Niners collapse against the ‘Hawks in 2013, and I don’t even want to think about ’14 or ’15. I don’t know what happened to his throwing arm or accuracy (and the ’15 season is Tomsula, so does that even count?) but the electricity he brought to the field, the chance that on any particular drive, Kappy could just go—that’s football.
Yet, when Kap joined the NFL, one writer saw fit to note: “That must make the guys in San Quentin happy,” as, “approximately 98.7 percent of the inmates at California’s state prison have tattoos.” What the fuck is that? David Whitely, the article’s author (found here), mentions the word “humble,” in trying to deflect the charges of racism (you really should read the article to note that whenever a writer says, “It’s not just a white thing, I hope,” one needs be extra wary). What is ‘humble,’ supposed to mean? When Peyton Manning lost the Super Bowl and left the field angry without the prerequisite shaking of hands, it was put down to his desire to win. When Cam Newton lost the Super Bowl and delivered a terse press conference, he was called a “boy,” told he lacked “leadership,” and suffered a dig even from Rob Lowe. Now, now—I’m sure folks will point to Russell Wilson (full disclosure: I live in Seattle, and experience the 12th Man everyday when the ‘Hawks are winning—ugh—yet he is a great QB, and definitely has another Super Bowl in him, unfortunately for me…) as the model of ‘humble.’ Here, Wilson delivers a whitewashed statement on Black Lives Matter that is easily digestible for a majority of white audiences, that exonerates us from our responsibility to change the institutional sickness in our systems, that has no challenge or anger. He is easy for whites to like (in this example—I do not want to pin thoughts or positions on Russell Wilson that he may not hold or believe); for some, liking Wilson is the equivalent of noting, “I have black friends,” or, “I don’t see color,” as an excuse to not deeply examine racial injustice. Does Wilson need to be angry? No, absolutely not—he is his own man and has his own opinions, and what right do I have, as a white male, to ask him to do anything? Nor, in general, should Wilson be called to discuss a topic simply because of his race—is Tom Brady asked to do the same?
Yet Kap. He is un-digestible. He wears his Christianity on his sleeve, literally, so that cannot be an avenue of attack. He donates time and money to his chosen charities, and works closely with them. For folks who care about these things, he has a higher Wonderlic score (38) than Tom Brady (33). Yet he is distinctly unloved outside of the SF (and Nevada) press. Tattoos? Terse media interviews? That Dre commercial? Brett Favre sent photos of his penis to women who did not want to see it; Tom Brady is a cheat; Johnny Manziel, where to begin, is still seen as a viable choice…yet, Kap?
To me, the heart of Kap is captured in his Twitter feed. He is a young man learning about the world, and the discrepancies therein. Like many of us, he is becoming more socially aware as he ages, and questioning who he is and what he stands for. He has recognized the privilege that being outstanding at sports has given him, and perhaps it was the fall from grace of the 2014 and 2015 seasons that made him more aware of the tumult in society—I cannot know. But one can track his Tweets that grow more and more aware of systemic injustice. He has embraced Black Lives Matter, he has spoken out against racism, he has forced those who thought they could continue to sit on the sidelines into the game.
And sit Kaepernick did. And he did this while in the fight of his football life for quarterback. Not when he was already locked in as the leader of the Niners. Not after a NFC Championship. Not even after a stunning performance. He cared enough for civil rights to show his support in the middle of the battle. Kap recognized that the struggle doesn’t wait for timing to be right—it’s not when can you fit in the time when, for many, it is life or death. And he knew the coming backlash. Yet he sat. That takes courage.
Now, I may not agree with Kap’s logic behind his staying seated, but he does have every right to do so. To me, the flag represents a more perfect union—the idea of what America could be, not what it is. The anthem serves to remind that nation that even in times of darkness, there is still light, still something better to reach for, something for all citizens. I’ve always disagreed with the melding of political theater, militarism, and sport that today’s games espouse. Celebration of military might is not what makes this country great, but the idea that all people have rights. And Kaepernick is making an attempt to show that those rights are not equally distributed, that we still must strive. And in that, he is standing.