by Paul West
American sports fans have not just forgiven, but even lionized, athletes–of all ethnic descriptions, and even both genders– who’ve done such things as: repeatedly beat their spouses; fight for sport in nightclubs; refuse to play with, or even compete against, African-Americans or Jews; discipline their children with excessive violence; repeatedly take others’ lives into their hands, by drinking copiously then driving on highways; cheat flagrantly on their spouses; unrepentantly commit dirty, dangerous fouls during games; or engage in hazing rituals which have driven others to distraction, depression, or worse.
But Colin Kaepernick–an articulate, mild-mannered young man who speaks well of his adoptive parents and donates huge sums to various charities–is the NFL’s public enemy number one, because he calmly explains why we should try harder to live up to our foundational ideals. This is perhaps this most disheartening aspect of his saga.
Let us not forget: during his era, Martin Luther King was derided as a rabble-rousing ‘commie,’ a divisive lowlife, and a national security threat. Our intelligence community devoted stunning amounts of resources toward painting him as a villain. Now, a common refrain among many circles of society is that Kaepernick should follow Dr. King’s example. Let us also remember that Rosa Parks was made to fear for her life, for that which now has her viewed as a hero.
Let us also not forget: this entire story began when Mr. Kaepernick decided to engage in silent, civil protest–not only his constitutional right, but something which follows the spirit of the founding fathers’ more enlightened aspects–on his own, and wholly unheralded. He didn’t do anything boisterous or unbecoming, and moreover, when asked, he explained himself in a remarkably lucid and thoughtful manner. At no point did he threaten violence of any kind. Even to the extent that one may disagree with his assessments of our society and justice system, it’s hard to argue that he could have presented his thoughts more patiently and diplomatically, even as he did so pointedly. Even if you allow for the argument that his t-shirts paying homage to Castro or Guevara might be seen as offensive to those whose distant family may have been displaced or even killed in the wake of their machinations–you must allow that the same can be said of the groundbreaking, defiant, stubborn, literal and figurative guerilla warriors who declared independence from their king in the name of ideals of which we’re so proud.
In the long view, it’s too soon to say how Colin Kaepernick will be remembered as a man. But regarding his impact on the areas where sports and society meet, he might end up in the same conversation as Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Hank Greenberg, Billie Jean King, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and Arthur Ashe. Maybe it’s time to forget about this particular protagonist, and get on the right side of history.