By refusing to stand during the national anthem, San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick is making an important, bold rebuke of police violence against Black people.
Kaepernick joins a long history of Black athletes using their platforms to advance racial and gender justice issues – like Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the Black Power salute during the national anthem at the 1968 Olympics, Jackie Robinson writing that he could not salute the flag as “a Black man in a white world,” the women of the WNBA wearing black in protest of police brutality, or LeBron James leading the Miami Heat to pose in an evocative photo, all wearing hoodies to express grief and outrage at the murder of Trayvon Martin.
And last night, Kaepernick was joined in his protest by two more players - his teammate Eric Reid and Seattle Seahawk Jeremy Lane. After the game, Kaepernick went even further and pledged to give $1 million to communities in need.1
All of these Black athletes demand that America live up to its own ideals – and that takes a courage we should all strive for. We need to continue working to ensure that such brave stands aren't remembered as gestures, but as catalysts for positive change.
So instead of asking whether Colin Kaepernick should stand up for the anthem, I ask instead: will you sit with him?
Ironically, but not surprisingly, many of those criticizing Kaepernick for sitting out during the national anthem are perfectly content to remain silent and seated while American principles of justice and freedom are under attack in an exponentially more dire way: police officers and prosecutors across the country violating their oaths to the constitution, unfairly, unjustly and violently targeting Black people.
And for those criticizing Kaepernick’s protest as an empty gesture, we already have proof that athletes can help move the needle on these issues – especially if they partner with organizations like Color Of Change. That’s what happened in 2014 after former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape making extremely insulting, racist statements about Black men.2 Clippers players staged a silent protest during the game that followed the incident to show that they wanted him gone as the team’s owner, meanwhile, Color Of Change was behind the scenes putting pressure on corporate sponsors, which resulted in many pulling their support until Sterling was ousted.
When we talk about the connection between star athletes and racial justice issues it’s important to remember that physical violence against Black communities and individuals isn’t the only concern. We also need to address the economic racism that so frequently exploits the talents of Black people without fair compensation or control of the resources.
For years, these practices have kept Black Americans locked out of ownership, management and profit sharing within professional sports. Gene Upshaw, a former football player, and the first Black person to helm the NFL Players Association, was the first to point out these racial disparities when he waged a battle for player free agency and profit sharing in the early 1980s.
In the NFL, where Kaepernick plays, 66% of the players are Black, there isn’t a single Black person among the league’s majority owners.3 While Black employees make up only 9% of the head coaches and the league’s office staff. In the NBA, more than 74% of NBA players are Black, but 98% of the league’s majority owners are White (Michael Jordan is the only Black owner). And the NBA has even seen a drop in the number of Black head coaches and franchise presidents in recent years.
We’re in a pivotal moment when forces are merging—when athletes are using their powerful voices and public stage to say enough, and racial justice organizations like Color Of Change and Black Lives Matter are organizing around agendas that can force change. We need to continue to support the athletes that are risking their livelihoods to stand up for justice.
Until Justice is Real,
Arisha, Rashad, Brandi, Anika, Evan, Bernard, Jade, Corina and the rest of the Color Of Change team.
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1. "Colin Kaepernick to donate $1 million to charities that aid communities in need," CBS, 09-02-2014
2. "Clippers stage silent protest," ESPN, 04-28-2014
3. "Three Leagues, 92 Teams And One Black Principal Owner," FiveThirtyEight, 04-28-2014
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