Last month, Megan Rapinoe, co-captain and star midfielder on the U.S. Women’s national soccer team, indicated that she would continue protesting the national anthem during the upcoming World Cup tournament. Rapinoe called it a “good ‘F you’” to the Trump administration. In fact, regardless of who eventually succeeds President Trump, Rapinoe stated, “I’ll probably never put my hand over my heart. I’ll probably never sing the national anthem again.”
Ms. Rapinoe was inspired in part by Colin Kaepernick, a mixed-race former NFL quarterback who in 2016 began sitting and then kneeling (to show more respect to current and former military personal) during the national anthem before games. That season, Mr. Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem before each regular season game arguing that he would not “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color” and vowed to continue his protest until “the American flag represents what it’s supposed to represent.” Other NFL players joined him.
Said Ms. Rapinoe of Kaepernick’s actions, “Colin Kaepernick very much inspired me, and inspired an entire nation, and still does, to actually think about these things.” Many people credit Colin Kaepernick with being a catalyst that reinvigorated a national movement to protest racial injustice, civil rights violations and other forms of mistreatment of African Americans and other minorities.
Many athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe are quick to assert that protesting the national anthem is by no means a sign of disrespect to members of the U.S. Armed Forces, many of whom gave the ultimate sacrifice, in order for Mr. Kaepernick, Ms. Rapinoe or any American to exercise their right to free speech. However, many servicemen and women, as well as Americans in general, view it as just that, and take strong exception. At TQC, we have no reason not to take Kaepernick and others at their word. Yet we also can understand and appreciate how our military and ordinary citizens alike could be offended by their actions. To note, President Trump didn’t help bridge the divide when he asserted that “NFL owners should ‘fire’ players who protest the national anthem.”
At TQC, we support the right of anybody to protest the national anthem or anything else they see fit; as long as it’s done in a peaceful way. We stand firmly behind all Americans and their cherished right to organize against and reject anything they deem unjust. That said, while we have no issue with Mr. Kaepernick and Ms. Rapinoe’s actions, and in fact commend them for fighting for a cause they wholeheartedly believe in, we think the venues used to lodge their protest are inappropriate.
Current reality is a 24-hour news cycle full of rage, vitriol, violence and controversy. Furthermore, “reality” television and various social media platforms serve as a tinderbox for spats, allowing them to escalate to the point where an entire nation is consumed by taking sides and lobbing insults - often at perfect strangers - back and forth.
Most people attend sporting events for leisurely entertainment. Watching our favorite sports teams allows us a window to get a reprieve from it all. Often, children accompany their parents to the ballfield to root for their favorite teams and see their heroes in action. Spectators, most of which are ordinary Americans making ordinary salaries, spend a large percentage of their disposable income to purchase tickets, in part to take a break from the stresses that encompass life, to be entertained, spend time quality with their children, and watch their favorite players compete. As such, a professional football game, soccer match, or any sporting event is the wrong forum for a political protest.
National Football League (NFL) games, World Cup matches, and other major sporting competitions are nationally televised events that command millions of viewers. In the modern era, many athletes are paid millions of dollars to throw and catch a football, pitch and hit a baseball, dribble and dunk a basketball, and kick a soccer ball. While we certainly do not begrudge anyone for earning as much as the market will pay them; free-riding on ordinary Americans' time and pocketbooks to push their own personal agenda is incorrect - especially in this day and age where there are various other more appropriate outlets for communication. In the past, a nationally televised sporting event offered one of the few venues to express personal views to a large audience. That is no longer the case. Social media along with athletes' considerable financial resources can and should serve this purpose.
In 1936, Jesse Owens made more than history – he made a powerful statement that endures to this day - by winning four gold medals at the Berlin Summer Olympics, when Adolf Hitler was in power. Despite pressure from the NAACP to withdraw from the Olympics because it would be seen as endorsing a racist regime, Owens did not. Bear in mind that Mr. Owens lived in an era where racism was rife and African Americans were treated terribly. Indeed, when he emerged victorious, Hitler grudgingly “congratulated” him with a handshake. That was more than he received from sitting U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who did not even send him a congratulatory note let alone receive him in the White House.
Socially and economically the odds were stacked against Jesse Owens. But what made him a hero, more than winning four gold medals, was his dignity in the face of strife. Not only did Owens persevere against all odds, he also was selfless; protesting to his coach when two Jewish sprinters, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, were replaced in the 4x100 relay. His protest was to no avail, yet was tantamount to his unwavering character.
Owens life post-Olympics faced its own set of challenges. Unlike athletes today, Jesse Owens did not benefit from healthy income and employment based on his athletic prowess. By all accounts, he held a series of unremarkable jobs and at one point filed for personal bankruptcy. Owens might have been financially broke, but his message was and remains, priceless.
At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, two African American athletes, gold medalist Tommie Smith – who broke the world record in the 200-meter dash and bronze winner John Carlos, bowed their heads and raised their fists. Regrettably, they were ripped apart in the press. Major news outlets called them embarrassments to America. There were calls to have their medals stripped.
Albert Woodfox, an human rights activist and part of the “Angola 3,” a man who spent 40 years in solitary confinement while enduring unimaginable physical and psychological torture for a crime he didn’t commit summed it up beautifully in his memoir titled, Solitary:
“How many people ever knew they (Smith & Carlos) were speaking from a well-thought-out human rights platform created by the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization of nonprofessional black athletes they belonged to?…Smith and Carlos raised their fists for Muhammad Ali’s right to protest the Vietnam War and refuse to be drafted…They raised their fists to demand removal of Avery Brundage, the anti-Semitic, white supremacist head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who was responsible for resisting a boycott of the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. They raised their fists to demand that the IOC hire more African American coaches and to protest the inclusion at the Olympic Games of countries ruled by apartheid. They stood without their shoes on to call attention to poverty in black communities in the United States and wore beads and scarves around their necks to pretest lynching. Smith, who broke the world record in that 200-meter race, and Carlos sacrificed personal fame, future endorsements, and possibly jobs to stand against apartheid, the Vietnam War, discrimination, poverty, lynching, racism, anti-semitism, and white supremacy-but what most people saw, and many condemned, was two black men who dared to raise their fists.”
The link to purchase Albert Woodfox’s book is here. While we don’t agree with all of Woodfox’s arguments, especially concerning the merits of capitalism, we highly recommend his book.
Back to the present.
Now, 51 years after Tommie Smith and John Carlos sacrificed nearly everything and used the only public forum then-available to them to raise awareness among Americans and the world about the mistreatment of blacks and other minorities in the United States: the head of the IOC is no longer an anti-Semite; African American coaches are represented in sports at least in proportion to their overall population in America; Apartheid has been relegated to the past; there is no draft or conscription; earnings and life expectancy of blacks are converging to that of whites; lynching is gone but still part of America’s unnerving and painful history.
“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt”
Following his protests, Colin Kaepernick was signed by Nike to a multi-million-dollar ad campaign accompanied by the tagline, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt”
With all due respect, the black athletes who “scarified everything” for a greater cause were the likes of Jesse Owens, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. The “sacrifice” Mr. Kaepernick made helped turn him into a richer celebrity than he already was. While it’s true, Kaepernick remains “unemployed,” and reportedly “black balled” by NFL owners, he settled a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against the NFL that added to his pot of gold. In our view, Kaepernick is good enough to play quarterback in the NFL. Had it not been for his commitment to a cause, he probably still would be. That said, he is not skilled enough for a team to overlook the distraction and controversy it would create by offering him a contract. If he was that exceptional a quarterback, he’d have been signed already (Rapinoe continues to ply her trade on the soccer field). In short, Colin Kaepernick “sacrificed” a few more years playing quarterback in the NFL, hate mail, and insults over Twitter to advance his cause. And he received tens of millions of dollars in compensation in the process. Messrs. Smith and Carlos should have been signed by Nike, not Mr. Kaepernick. They “sacrificed everything.”
Megan Rapinoe is a gay woman. Two to three generations ago, as a woman she would not have had the same opportunity as her male cohorts to achieve this level of athletic prominence and the resulting compensation. Equally as relevant, as a lesbian she would have faced more social obstacles not just in coming out but having the right to same sex marriage. That a lesbian such as Megan Rapinoe or a mixed-race man like Colin Kaepernick, could exercise their fundamental right to free speech and protest, without suffering major repercussions are testaments to how far this country has come towards recognizing all American’s regardless of race, gender, sexual preference and creed.
Racism and discrimination still exist in America, that is undeniable. That said, this nation is less racist and more equal today than at any time in America’s sometimes painful history. Work still needs to be done and progress is not linear, but despite what we read in the news, see on TV, or read on social media, the long-term trajectory is moving in the right direction; that is also undeniable. We owe a great deal of gratitude to the likes of Jesse Owens, Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Albert Woodfox for this. They are American heroes.
For Messrs. Owens, Smith, Carlos and many other athletes who competed decades ago, a sporting event was the only venue that offered the scope needed to capture a large audience’s attention. For Colin Kaepernick, Megan Rapinoe and other political activists whose hearts are certainly in the right place, it’s their right, but it’s the wrong venue. Today, if a player wants to stand up (or kneel down) for a cause, he or she should do so on their own time and their own dime. Athletes such as Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kaepernick perhaps need not reassess what they are fighting for, but rather the venue in which they choose to fight for it.