On Colin Kaepernick, Free Speech, and Bad Arguments

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So, Colin Kaepernick. What’s the deal?

Over the past week, a lot of folks have had some pretty strong opinions about Colin Kaepernick’s choice to refuse to stand for the national anthem — and his reasons for doing so. If you don’t know what’s going on, I’ll let you read a more detailed account here. My job, today, is to offer a few scattered thoughts about responses to Kaepernick’s protest. Since I don’t feel like writing a proper introduction, I’ll just get right into it:

2. He has freedom of speech, duh!

Well, yes, but so does everyone, really. And that would matter if the NFL were a government agency.

I keep seeing this argument being made by people who I could have sworn were ripping apart less politically-friendly people for misunderstanding the 1st Amendment. It’s really weird. After all, a few weeks ago, many (not all) of these folks were saying “Hey, Milo Yiannopoulos’ rights haven’t been violated, since Twitter sets its own policy.” They were adamant about that when conservatives came screaming from the depths of Twitter’s dark dirty hole to cry censorship. So what gives?

I think the problem we’re having is that so much of the “free speech” conversation has been co-opted by a two-sided debate, when really we need to have a conversation about the quality of the speech. I don’t want Yiannopoulos kicked off Twitter just for being a right-wing jackass; I want him gone from Twitter because he is actively dangerous to the platform and to the people who use it. The free speech thing doesn’t actually matter to me in this context. You don’t have free speech on Twitter anyway, so it seems a moot point. For the same reason, Kaepernick has no expectation of free speech. If the NFL decides to boot him from the 49ers and the NFL as a whole (assuming they can even do that, mind; I don’t know the actually rules in the NFL), they’re free to do so. Hell, they don’t even have to have a good reason for it. They could just say “yeah, he flapped his gums, and now he’s gone.” That would obviously be a shitty thing to do; it’d also be a really stupid thing to do, because they’d put themselves in a terrible position where basically anyone could call them an organization of hypocrites — and they’d be right. Also:  seriously? They’re going to boot him from the NFL for wearing some stupid socks and sitting down during the anthem? That’s what it takes to get booted? Not domestic violence, rape, various other kinds of ACTUAL crimes? I mean, some of the criminal contingent aren’t in the NFL anymore, but some of them ARE. Still.

Which brings us to…1

3. Kaepernick is a distraction who should be booted…

But, see, I don’t think Kaepernick is actually a distraction. He might be a distraction for the general public, but by that logic, so are a lot of players for all sorts of reasons (y’all remember T.O., right?). We’re razor focused on Kaepernick because he did something that a lot of people vehemently dislike. And why? Well, the common argument seems to be “cause we’re true patriots,” which seems as useless an argument as any. You’re a true patriot because you stand for the national anthem and salute the flag? That’s what it takes? That’s not my definition of patriotism. It’s certainly not the kind of patriotism I think any of us should be proud of if it comes with added social pressures to conform. That’s just modern jingoism, and, well, I don’t have much respect for jingoism. Jingoism is the kind of thing that leads people to say “America is already great” and “Make America Great Again” in the same breath.

Personally, I think the only reasons you should get booted from a sport are 1) if you are legitimately a terrible player, and 2) if your actions have caused significant damage to the NFL itself or to the individual franchise. To the first:  OK, so I’m not expert on the NFL (and, frankly, neither are 90% of the people calling for Kaepernick to be booted, so…), so I looked it up. According to ESPN, Kaepernick fell 4 slots in the annual ranking of starting quarterbacks in 2015 (from 14th to 18th). What the heck does this mean? I’ll just quote the article:

This year, Kaepernick fell to 18th, at the top of Tier 3—or, to be more specific, he fell from an average ranking of 2.5 to 2.94, which implies that he fell from having half of the evaluators tab him as a Tier 2 player to having nearly everyone agree he’s a Tier 3. Tier 3 quarterbacks are “good enough to start, but need lots of support, making it tougher to contend at the highest level.”

This year, USA Today has Kaepernick at 28th in one article, though they admit that they hadn’t actually seen him play when they made the assessment; presumably, they based the assessment on last year’s performance. In a more recent article (from 8/31), they list him in a group of players that “could start for some teams, but still not very good.” It’s worth noting that USA Today views Kaepernick as “the most physically-talented player” on that particular list, and they do say that it’s likely he will take the starter slot because the back-up QB isn’t up to snuff.

Now, again, I have no idea how to take any of this. These folks know a hell of a lot more about football than I do. And they know far less about the individual players than the coaches who work with them. So, maybe Kaepernick isn’t good enough anymore. Sure, fine. But I’ll remind folks that nobody would give Kurt Warner a chance in the NFL until he cut his chops in Arena Football; he would go on to win a Superbowl and a number of other accolades. So…yeah.

I’ll also remind folks that Kaepernick isn’t just protesting blindly. He met with a former Green Beret recently to discuss alternative methods for protesting that would be seen as less offensive. He has no requirement to do that, but I find it impossible to argue that this man doesn’t care or have any respect or class when he’s literally asking military personal what might be a more effective method to protest. You don’t do that if you literally don’t give a shit about the police or anyone in uniform.

4. Oh, shut your face; I totally care about those other issues, too!

The argument goes something like this:

A:  Why are you so adamant to boot Kaepernick for saying something you don’t like, but you’re curiously silent about players who rape, beat their wives, and so on?

B:  But I’m not silent!  I care about that, too.

I’m sympathetic to the defense. Really, I am. I spend a good 5-10 minutes going over common fallacies with my students in just about every composition course I teach, and one of the big ones is the Straw Man fallacy (i.e., misrepresenting someone’s actual argument). And, true, some of the folks attacking Kaepernick have in the past been much harsher on folks like Michael Vick, Darren Sharper, Aaron Hernandez, or basically anyone on this list.

But, well, I’m more sympathetic to a different version of this argument:  that trivial aspects concerning Kaepernick are treated with more seriousness than the actual issues that Kaepernick’s protest addressed. There are actual serious problems happening in black communities all over this country (not just their communities, obviously, but let’s stay on target here). Some have serious crime or drug problems. Some have faced years of racial profiling, unchecked police brutality, etc. Whether you think the police are out of control, I fail to see how anyone can look at what is going on in this country and think everything is OK within the police force. Time and time again, we’ve seen people of color die at the hands of law enforcement, in many cases with what seems to me to be utter disregard for human life. Children shot down. Men shot in their cars while their kids watch them bleed out. Women choked (and, in some cases, raped). Shootings galore. On and on and on and on. Whether you agree that these are racially motivated shouldn’t change the fact that the prevalence of these events is alarming (and, well, hate to break it to you, these things are racially motivated to a degree, even if the intent isn’t racist).

But instead of addressing those things, some of you are screaming at the top of your lungs to have Kaepernick fired, to have his career ruined forever — because he sat down during the anthem, because he worse some questionable socks, because you just don’t like him and how dare he have an opinion on a serious issue! It seems to me that this furor is misplaced. If you’re so pissed off that this football player made his opinion public, but you’re not foaming at the mouth about police violence, drug crime, the deaths of innocent people, etc. etc. etc., I think your priorities aren’t just out of wack; they’re downright immoral.

5. Kaepernick is just a privileged asshole raised by white parents because his black mama didn’t want him. What right does he have to talk about any of this? He should just play football!

Oh boy. This argument. I’ve seen this one all over conservative Twitter, particularly in a certain blonde newscaster’s circle of hatemongering (don’t Google for your own sake). Let’s tackle all the problems with this, shall we?

a. Of course Kaepernick is fairly privileged. He’s a football player making quite a lot of money; he’s not poor, and I imagine he didn’t live the experience folks of color in other parts of the country lived (we’ll come back to that in a minute). But it’s precisely because he’s a famous football player making millions and standing in front of millions on Sundays that he has the opportunity to raise awareness for the kinds of issues that matter to him. But you seem to forget that Kaepernick DOES put his money where his mouth is. He has used his fame to raise money to support children with heart conditions, and from what I’ve read, he donates far more than the time he’s asked to so he can spend time with the kids. And just a couple days ago, he announced that he would donate $1 million of his earnings this season to charities that help people (but, sure, he’s a self-centered jackass).

Also:  where were you all when Tim Tebow was wearing his Bible verses or his mother made that anti-abortion ad? Oh, right, you were fine with that. So long as the political message is one YOU agree with (conveniently — we’ll come back to that in a minute, too), you’re OK with it, but the second a black man professes a view of police violence that curiously goes against your worldview (and by doing so in really the most innocuous way he could — seriously, he sat down and wore some socks, ffs…he didn’t run out into the streets and start smacking cops or running ad campaigns for his political views), well, you’re all against that shit.

b. What right does he have? Well, we covered that already. He’s an American. As an American, he has as much a right as anyone to talk about anything. The question you need to be asking is whether he should talk. Since I agree with Kaepernick that police brutality/violence is a serious problem in this country, I think it’s perfectly fine for a famous person to use their image to raise awareness.

Also:  there’s nothing inherently wrong with a football player taking a position on a political issue. I’ll remind you that a good chunk of this country plans to vote for a man who has literally served ZERO time in political office and who has repeatedly shown he has no clue how a country actually works. So…

c. What the hell is with all this talk about his black mother who didn’t want him? Seriously, what’s the deal? This seems to be an argument that somehow defends the idea that Kaepernick has no business talking about issues that affect black people. How exactly being the adoptive son of white parents or the surrendered child of a black woman somewhere means a black man has no business talking about issues in the black community…I really don’t know. The logic of this is so bizarre, but it’s not exactly surprising.  Here’s why:

Racism.

Yeah, yeah. I get it. You don’t like the dirty R word, but the reality is that this argument is being used to invalidate black complaints about police brutality. Kaepernick isn’t supposed to talk about these issues because he’s a victim of black communities. That’s what this argument means. Kaepernick should dislike black communities because they’re dirty, immoral, bad places. He should count himself lucky because white people helped him get out of there. White people white-ized him.  And when you think about it in those terms, as many people have suggested on Twitter, it’s kind of hard to ignore the blatant racism at work.

Of course, not everyone is saying exactly this, but they are parroting the argument ad naseum — and without question.

Now, I’m not saying Kaepernick is somehow magically more able to talk about these issues that anyone else solely because he’s a black man. But I am saying that his home life has fuck all to do with whether he has any business talking about these issues. Attempts to use his adoptive parents to invalidate his opinions are, to be frank, disgusting — and frequently racist to the core.  And those arguments only feed into the very problem Kaepernick’s protest was meant to address.

6. Well, OK, so what do you think about standing for the anthem and what not?

Glad you asked (nobody did). Personally, I will stand for the anthem for two reasons:

1) Respect for the military, since there’s almost always a contingent of the military presenting the flag on the field.

2) Social pressure. I’m in Florida. If you didn’t know, Florida is pretty conservative in a lot of respects, and football games are a great place to meet people who will make your life hell if you don’t conform. Remember that bit above about my issue with jingoism? Well, I’ll admit that I’m not brave enough to risk getting punched or harassed by a drunk guy at a football game because I didn’t stand. I know, pathetic.

But that’s about ALL I will do. I don’t do the hand on the heart thing anymore because I just think it’s ridiculous (to each their own). I don’t sing because I’ve heard the damn anthem so many times that anything more than humming is all I can stand. And I don’t go out of my way to show my patriotism, because I don’t think true patriotism screams in your face. And I don’t actually care if anyone else doesn’t stand for the anthem. After all, I’m at a university with a lot of foreign students, and I see no reason to force them to observe our “patriotic things” just because they’re here. And if someone sits in protest, that’s fine, because I don’t actually place much more than personal value on observing the anthem/flag.

And that’s really all I’ve got to say, I guess.

Comments are open. Feel free to disagree, but assholes can find somewhere else to be.

  1. In the middle of writing this post, NBC reported that the Santa Clara Police Union threatened to pull their coverage of 49ers games if it doesn’t punish Kaepernick. A couple quick things:  my understanding is that the police work as a sort of private security, so presumably they are hired by the stadium or the 49ers (or some combination) to cover the games, but they are not in attendance in an official capacity. HOWEVER, I don’t think that actually matters here for the simple fact that the POLICE are hiring themselves out as private security, not individual officers working for a SEPARATE organization that offers private security. In other words, I still consider the Santa Clara Police to be working as government agents while providing security for 49ers games (and other services held in the stadium). Now, I may be wrong, and that’s fine, but while I didn’t consider this whole thing to be a free speech issue before, I do consider it one now.  Whenever an arm of the government tells an organization that it will compromise the safety of the people attending an event if an organization doesn’t punish someone for exercising their freedom of speech, I consider that to be a very serious violation. I also consider anyone who supports this for ANY REASON to have played their hand as a pro-censorship goon. The police have no more right to threaten citizens of this country for sitting down during the anthem or wearing some stupid socks during a football game than they do for writing a song like N.W.A.’s “Fuk da Police.”

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Florida studying science fiction, postcolonialism, posthumanism, and fantasy.


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