For the most part, fans don’t want to hear from their star players, believing that a combination of wealth and athletic ability translates into performing for adoring fans and nothing more.
Athletes can be outspoken, but only when their message is entertaining or supplying bulletin board material to the opposition. Fans pay their salary, and therefore – in their eyes – get to determine what opinions are voiced on what topics. Being an activist athlete is a misnomer – it breaks the athletic social code that so many young men and women enter into when they become professional athletes. They should be seen, and not heard, unless what is being heard has been pre-approved by their adoring fan base.
Enter 49ers 5th year starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick is half-black, and apparently fully unpatriotic for not standing during the national anthem during a preseason game. His reasoning being that he will not pay respect to a flag that represents to him, the execution of black men in the United States by members of law enforcement.
Some will applaud him, as they have applauded NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Lebron James, Chris Paul, and Dwayne Wade for addressing the matters of police violence to open the ESPY Awards this past July. Some will despise him, and reign down criticism and charges of being a traitor and unpatriotic, as they did to gymnast Gabby Douglas, who stood at attention without covering her heart during the national anthem. Fans feel that expressions of dissent by athletes are a violation of the social code that they’re expected to abide by. They feel that their role is to be an athlete and not an activist, and to combine the two is a violation of expectations.
By not standing for the anthem, Colin Kapernick is taking a risky, but some might say necessary stance on social issues. On one end, he’s been a struggling quarterback over the past few years, and there’s nothing worse than an underperforming athlete who decides to take an unpopular stance on national matters. It’s the double whammy of professional sports: doing your job poorly while being unpatriotic. He’s also half-black, which will certainly bother those white sports fans who enjoy supporting their African-American athletes, just not the concerns that pertain to their well being as everyday citizens. It is this paradox of principles that makes what Kaepernick is doing all the more valid and yet risky. He’s risking lucrative endorsements, the support of his teammates, fans, and perhaps alienating any future team for whom he may end up playing.
The dilemma we often find ourselves as a country is supporting our athletes up to a point, especially when they’re not white. We support their effort, their training, their enthusiasm for the game, and their victories –but when it comes to matters of personal safety and cultural protection, many of us fall silent. If you’ve never been pulled over or accused of robbery because you’re a black male, it’s difficult to find the sympathy for those who protest that exact violation of rights. White males have difficulty finding a common ground on that issue, and that’s what has often sparked that outrage at athletes. Who are they to take stances on social issues? It’s not what we pay them to do, and it’s not why we show up to sporting events. We want them to perform for us to our expectation, and hopefully theirs – anything more than that isn’t part of the deal.
More than anything else, Kaepernick is testing the American psyche and principles that we value. Will fans respect his display of free speech, even if they disagree with his intentions or will they turn on him and decide his cause isn’t worth their attention? Only time will tell, but from the looks of it, it’s going to be a long season for the quarterback of the 49ers.