Washington, United States, Aug 30 – By refusing to stand for the national anthem, American football player Colin Kaepernick has been slammed for politicizing sport and even accused of being unpatriotic, but he’s just the latest black athlete to protest US race relations.
The controversy has even entered the presidential race, with Republican nominee Donald Trump calling Kaepernick’s move “a terrible thing.”
“Maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try, it’s not gonna happen,” the real estate mogul said Monday.
Remaining seated on the bench during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Friday before his San Francisco 49ers played the Green Bay Packers in a National Football League pre-season game.
Etiquette in the United States requires that everyone stand when the national anthem is played. The song is featured before the start of American sporting events, with athletes, coaches and fans all facing the flag for a moment of patriotic unity.
But Kaepernick, 28, said he chose not to stand Friday to protest what he called oppression of black people in the United States.
“Ultimately it’s to bring awareness and make people realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust, people aren’t being held accountable for and that’s something that needs to change,” said the quarterback, whose biological father is black but was adopted and raised by white parents.
“There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” he said, referring to a number of high-profile deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement.
– Right to protest –
In a country where free speech is protected by the Constitution, the White House has defended the player’s right to protest.
“I certainly don’t share the views that Mr Kaepernick expressed after the game in explaining his reasoning for his actions,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.
“(But) we surely acknowledge and even defend his right to express those views.”
Kaepernick is repeating arguments that have already been raised by activists, artists and other public figures.
Professional athletes who have spoken out against racial discrimination and gun violence include basketball stars Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
But unlike the NBA players, who made public statements to promote their message, Kaepernick delivered his opinion in a manner that has stirred national controversy.
In the United States, the flag and the national anthem are supposed to be treated with the utmost respect.
Irish singer Sinead O’Connor ran afoul of public sentiment in 1990 when she refused to allow “The Star-Spangled Banner” to be played before one of her shows in New Jersey. In response, a number of radio stations banned her from their airwaves.
A quarter-century later, Kaepernick finds himself vilified on social media, with some fans demanding that the NFL suspend or kick him out of the league.
Some former fans have even posted videos of themselves burning their Kaepernick jerseys.
– Rough road? –
For now, the tattooed quarterback — who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013, where they lost 34-31 to the Baltimore Ravens — seems to have the support of his club.
“We recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem,” the 49ers said in a statement.
But based on the experiences of other politically outspoken athletes, Kaepernick has a rough road ahead, especially as he has vowed to continue to sit during the national anthem in upcoming games.
In the 1995-1996 season, NBA player and Muslim convert Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to salute the US flag during pre-game ceremonies, instead stretching during the national anthem and avoiding looking at the banner, saying it was incompatible with his beliefs.
He was suspended by the league for one game, but his views eroded his fan base.
Will Kaepernick face a similar fate? Other athletes have had their careers derailed due to political controversy but later revived their popularity.
Muhammad Ali was buried in June to tributes that poured in from around the world.
But the boxing legend’s refusal to serve in the Vietnam War saw him prosecuted for draft evasion and effectively banned from the sport for three years.
There’s also the iconic “Black Power” salute of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised black-gloved fists while standing on the medal podium at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968.
The pair were denouncing racial segregation back home and were reviled for decades before being hailed for their courage to speak out on injustice.
“Colin’s made a very important and a non-volatile statement about the realities of the society in which he lives,” Smith told the Canadian news magazine Maclean’s. “I congratulate him and his beliefs of total parity.”