Sports, Race, and the First Amendment

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has taken a lot of heat for his refusal to stand during the national anthem. For exercising his constitutional right to speak and peacefully protest as he sees fit, he has been called ungrateful, unpatriotic and the N-word by strangers on his Twitter feed. Even his birth mother, who gave Kaepernick up for adoption when she was 19, publicly scolded him on the social networking service for “bringing shame to the very country & family who afforded you so many blessings.”

For his part, Kaepernick, the biracial son of a white mother and a black father, was crystal clear and unapologetic about the reasons he chose to boycott “The Star-Spangled Banner”:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder. …This is not something that I am going to run by anybody. I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”

With his protest, Kaepernick stands side by side with generations of black athletes who used the national anthem and the flag as a means to freely express their frustrations with the state of race relations in this country.

Nearly 50 years ago at the 1968 Olympics, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood up on the winners podium as gold and bronze medalists, arms raised and fists clenched while the national anthem played. For their audacity to air the country’s racial laundry in front of a global audience, Smith and Carlos were ostracized, suspended from the U.S. Olympic team and received death threats.

Smith, who was 24 when he won gold in the 200-meter race, later explained the reasoning behind the unprecedented gesture that he said didn’t symbolize hatred for the flag or country.

“We were not Antichrists. We were just human beings who saw a need to bring attention to the inequality in our country,” he said.

Today, Smith is among several athletes who have stood up in Kaepernick’s defense.

“He’s being vilified in how he brings the truth out,” Smith told USA TODAY. “I support him because he’s bringing the truth out, regardless of how done. If it’s not done violently, at least he should be heard.”

The methods in which Smith, Carlos, and now, Kaepernick, chose to express discontent with what they considered unjust treatment of people of color in this country are as old as America and as American as the national anthem itself.  The true “shame” in Kaepernick’s boycott is that the issues that caused it remain unresolved.

In his 1972 autobiography, baseball icon Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play in the major leagues, described playing in his first World Series in 1947. Civil rights and the national anthem collided back then, as well. As one of the most respected athletes in all of sports, his perspective is still worth hearing.

“There I was, the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper, part of a historic occasion, a symbolic hero to my people. …The band struck up the national anthem. The flag billowed in the wind. It should have been a glorious moment for me as the stirring words of the national anthem poured from the stands. Perhaps, it was, but then again, perhaps, the anthem could be called the theme song for a drama called The Noble Experiment. Today, as I look back on that opening game of my first world series, I must tell you that it was Mr. [Branch] Rickey’s drama and that I was only a principal actor. As I write this twenty years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world. In 1972, in 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

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2 thoughts on “Sports, Race, and the First Amendment

  1. Well done and said, Sharon. It is truly a shame that people of color are villainized; and, our voices are silenced when there are attempts to address human and constitutional rights issues.

  2. Your report and the caption on the Mexico Games picture ignore the role that Australian athlete Peter Norman played. Norman supported their protest, suggested they wear the black gloves, and wore a human rights badge for the ceremony in solidarity. It cost him his athletics career and despite achieving appropriate qualifying times he was never again selected to represent Australia in an Olympics. Shame on Australia.

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