From the moment that Colin Kaepernick sat down for the national anthem before the first preseason game in August 2016 (he began kneeling for the regular season in September), much of white America made it about patriotism. Kaepernick’s seeming act of irreverence for the flag and the blood, sweat, and tears spilled to uphold its honor could mean only one thing—he’s a radical who doesn’t get it. After all, he’s earned millions of dollars in America. If that can’t generate a salute, he should find another country in which to live. During his protest, then-candidate Donald Trump from the campaign trail relayed this exact sentiment about Kaepernick: “I think it’s personally not a good thing, I think it’s a terrible thing. And, you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try, it won’t happen.”
Since the end of the 2016 season, much has happened. Kaepernick, a Super Bowl quarterback in 2013, opted out of his contract and has yet to be signed by another team. Other players, some who quietly followed his lead during the 2016 season, have emerged during this year’s season vocally and through action. In addition to sideline kneeling, sitting and placing hands on those who do some teams have locked arms in solidarity and even remained in the locker room for the anthem as an entire team. The Cleveland Browns rant onto the field with first responders around the 9/11 memorial as a sign of broader unity.
And then President Trump spoke again. In a stump speech for an Alabama senatorial candidate and before an almost exclusively white audience, he proclaimed, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners — when somebody disrespects our flag — to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’” He later clarified that his statement had “nothing to do with race or anything else — this has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.” And then he provided the ideal relationship between sports and patriotism by applauding the Southern-centric sport of car racing with “So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag – they said it loud and clear!”
What is different about Trump’s recent statement on football compared to his one last year on Kaepernick is that it doesn’t stay within the sea of platitudes that floats vague patriotism. It nods at it but quickly shifts to his version of business protocol. You have an employee who disagrees with you or challenges you or your vision and you get rid of him or her. Ask James Comey, Reince Priebus or the countless other causalities of Trump’s insecurity plus tempter over the past 40 years. With his declaration, Trump, while continuing to denounce those who kneel, puts those of his own kind—NFL owners—on notice. If they don’t imitate him and fire employees for supposed acts of insubordination, they are enabling the traitors. And expected, several NFL owners (only after they have been upbraided personally by the president), have stated their own version of opposition.
Quietly existing below the presidential bluster and its breathless reaction is Colin Kaepernick. His silence on the sidelines has largely continued while he is busy aligning himself with activists and causes that further his agenda. His name is invoked whenever a player kneels, and we can assume that Trump had Kaepernick on his mind with this latest outburst. One interpretation of the relationship between Kaepernick and the movement in sports that has followed is that Kaepernick was the catalyst, but like Tommie Smith and John Carlos before him, nothing more. Players, coaches and even owners protesting during the national anthem is proof positive that Kaepernick as the founding father may still inspire, but as with Jesus and Marx, the movement has clearly gotten away from him. Just as the opposition to Kaepernick labeled him an ingrate thus dismissing this political claims and just as the softer stance of “he has a Constitutional right to protest” similarly ignores the issue of racial injustice, it seems that Trump’s reference to workplace politics is yet the latest diversionary line.
But I want to suggest that Kaepernick’s gambit last year was broad enough and religiously profound enough not only to account for the current rhetoric and actions of defiance on the field but also to presage Trump’s newest bromide. Kaepernick was most certainly subverting the ritual of standing in honor of our country by kneeling. But he was also displaying his “irreverence” in front of his boss, the white team owner high above in his stadium box, and before the predominantly white fans in the seats who fund his salary. Reminiscent of the slave who refused to work, Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat, Kaepernick also refused to abide by the rule laid down by white men in from of them on live TV. His act decelerates the flow of capital, which may be his greatest sin, thus explaining why no team has hired him heretofore. And look no further to six teams containing 70% African-Americans that have yet to have one player not stand for the national anthem as evidence for the power of the owner.
Silent kneeling—a move that simultaneously and ambiguously conveys defiance and humility; critique and acquiescence; is open to interpretation and projection with its lack of verbal demands and is closed in the way that the silent treatment works; civil religious disobedience and religious piety. It is a gesture that re-appropriates Tebowing in order to shine a light on an immanent, broken society—not on a transcendent, whole God.
It is impossible to predict what the next stage of athletic protest against the devaluation of black bodies will look like much less what our President will say about it. But for now, the silent kneeling of Colin Kaepernick one year ago leaves us with a powerful, lasting image that continues to inspire as well as respond to novel means of minimizing it.
Jeffrey Scholes, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and director of the Center for Religious Diversity and Public Life at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.