Even amidst media hypocrisy, Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protest reminds Christians of the need to speak out against threats to religious freedom.
The NFL season is only days away, but if you’ve so much as logged onto the internet within the last week, then you’re aware that the sports world has been abuzz with a storyline that has little to do with forecasting wins and losses.
Colin Kaepernick, the multi-million-dollar quarterback who led San Francisco to a Super Bowl just three short years ago, sat through the National Anthem during a preseason game on August 26th.
The reason? According to Kaepernick, the act was a deliberate protest against racial injustice and “police brutality” in America. Following the game, the quarterback elaborated:
People don’t 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. That’s something that this country stands for freedom, liberty and justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.
Kaepernick further explained his actions by indicating how he believes that the flag, and the anthem, no longer represent what they should:
“[injustice] is something that has to change. When there’s significant change, and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”
Kaepernick’s comments and actions have been divisive, to say the least. Everyone from Donald Trump to President Obama has opined as to whether the quarterback was right in his act of protesting racial injustice (Trump, for what it’s worth, suggested Kaepernick move to another country). While some takes on Kaepernick’s actions have led to greater philosophical debate when it comes to what it really means to stand for the anthem (National Review’s Ben Shapiro penned a particularly interesting editorial), most editorials from the sports world have praised Kaepernick. Opinion pieces on ESPN (which has a track-record of promoting left-leaning human interest stories) have praised the biracial quarterback as authentically American, and have compared him favorably to sports icons from the civil rights era who’ve also made prominent protests against “injustice.”
Support or disagreement for Kaepernick’s actions has largely fallen along party lines. Even though Kaepernick used his postgame press-conference to call Trump a racist and suggest that Hillary Clinton should be jailed, conservatives have been vocal in their rejection of the protest act, citing it as a slap in the face to law enforcement, military personnel, and the idea of American freedom.
Despite my own conservativism, I can’t fully join in with the heated rhetoric against Colin. One reason is that I have a personal history with him; I briefly got to know Colin while working as a sports reporter when we were both in college, so I’m not completely unsympathetic to what might have motivated him to protest the anthem. He might be a different person than the young man I joked around with and even thumb-wrestled six years ago, but at the end of the day he’s still a thoughtful twenty-something reacting to an imperfect society and culture.
He is, more than I might care to admit, sometimes like me.
Which leads me to a confession: I’ve also protested “injustice” by sitting through the National Anthem. Except in my case, the injustice I felt compelled to protest, the “lost” meaning of the flag that I wanted to draw attention to, was not racial injustice, but rather the erosion of religious freedom.
The specifics of the protest are unimportant; I’ve since regretted the summer day in 2015 when I sat through the National Anthem at Camden Yards, and have now accepted the view that a far more meaningful response would have been to educate myself further and engage in dialogue about the threats to religious freedom (an up-to-date list, published by the USCCB, is online here).
These threats, which including the coercion of Catholic institutions to provide abortion-inducing contraceptives as part of the HHS Mandate, as well as public university enforcement of “no praying” zones, are just as real and ever-present as the racial profiling and the use of excessive force that Kaepernick felt compelled to draw attention to.
And while the removal of religious freedoms in the name of the state’s goals may have yet to feature like the high-profile racial incidents that have rocked our country over the past two years, the unjust measures do deserve our attention. They also call to mind the words of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., whose famous protest work, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” reminds Americans that “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”
My brief protest of an unjust law didn’t last; I came to see that not standing for the anthem caused pain amidst veterans, law enforcement, and military family members. Yet, while I regret causing this pain and misunderstanding, I don’t regret having the notion to do something to make my voice heard.
Which brings me back to Kaepernick, and the unfortunate truth of the “platform” entertainment and sports culture we live in today.
There is, it would seem, an innate hypocrisy in the way in which Kaepernick’s celebrity affords him the favor of a brave protestor. Visiting ESPN.com, Fox Sports, or any other major sports media source last week, I couldn’t avoid a Kaepernick story had I tried. Headlines, opinion pieces, cultural reaction—it seemed like the entire sports and pop culture world was at least talking about the anthem protest, if not cheerleading the cause of multi-million dollar athletes protesting police brutality and racial injustice.
Let me be clear: This is not a bad thing. But it is a remarkably different, yet predictable, reaction when compared to athletes who have addressed traditionally “conservative” and potentially “Catholic” causes.
ESPN, which runs a website devoted to the intersection of sports, race, pop culture, and “social justice,” afforded no coverage to black NFL tight end Ben Watson when he spoke out against the racist underpinnings of Planned Parenthood. Instead, Watson was relegated to mostly Christian websites—forced to the margins of the sports world and given little to no mainstream credibility for his thoughtful and insightful analysis. Matt Birk, a former Baltimore Ravens center, was virtually ignored for skipping his team’s White House visit after Obama declared that God should “bless” Planned Parenthood. And NFL coaching legend Mike Ditka has been shoed under the rug by ESPN for his vocal support of conservative causes, including what he believes is the silencing of conservatives in sports and entertainment media.
Kaepernick’s divisive act reminds us that there is injustice within our society and within our world. Yet for the media and liberal elite who continue to laud athletes for “speaking up” on social justice issues, the limits of acceptable protests and protest worthy causes are narrower than the confines of a stadium. As Catholics and as Christians, we’re nevertheless reminded that, when given a platform, we need to speak out about a wide range of issues related to justice and freedom—in particular, the threats to religious freedom. It doesn’t need to involve sitting through the National Anthem. It should never include removing the capacity to dialogue. But, unlike Kaepernick’s protest, our dissent must be guided by the words of Martin Luther King Jr., and reflect a desire to seek justice and freedom based on a moral and natural law given to us by God.