Since my eldest son is just five, he’s largely ignorant of the advanced metrics we use to measure the abilities of NFL quarterbacks. Quarterback ratings are as confounding to him as the compound interest rate of our savings account. My wife, who is Brazilian, isn’t going to explain it to him–oblong balls are an affront to her athletic sensibilities–and I’m reluctant to have that talk. For years, I scurried away on Sundays to watch games at friends’ houses, but then came the Ray Rice video, the emerging consensus that getting hit in the head over and over and over again does bad things to your brain, and the unavoidable conclusion that though the actual game itself is not racist, the organizations profiting from it surely are. Also, the Giants got super boring to watch.
But the NFL will not be denied the spotlight so I know that my son will hear–in snippets of conversation, on the news, or even on the playground–about the fate of Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, a capable, above-average player, is still without a job. After opting out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers, the 29-year-old has watched less talented quarterbacks scooped up from free agency. Why not him? Because, at the beginning of last season, he declined to stand for the national anthem and because, despite the cries of the commentariat, he never stood up. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he explained. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Kaepernick’s was referring to police violence and no one really refuted his statement.
Now, on the eve of the 2017 season, his career in the NFL is more than likely over. Though it is fairly clear NFL owners are illegally colluding to blackball him from the game, there’s little he can do without solid proof but watch other men, lesser men, take the field. So, when my son asks about Kaepernick, what should I say?
In his books at school, in the narratives of our time, on television and in gauzy biopics, the traditional narrative of the hero is that he or she succeeds. One stands up for what is right and is rewarded. Restricting the gaze to famous figures who have become politically engaged — as opposed to activists and politicians who have come to the public eye through their activism or politicking — we see guys like Lebron James applauded, rightfully, for wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt, a tribute to Eric Garner, before an NBA game. We comfort ourselves in the knowledge that, yes, an athlete can make a political statement and still earn millions and still win and still costar in romantic comedies. But Kaepernick’s experience proves that isn’t true.
We can all agree, I hope, the oppression of any people is shameful and that people of color in this country have been and continue to have violence visited upon their bodies with alarming frequency and seeming impunity. By not standing up for an anthem, Kaepernick took a principled stand. So, if the pablum of a post-racial woke America stuck, he’d be playing right now, much-respected and ballyhoo’ed. Right? But that’s not what happened. Kaepernick stood up for what he believed and is now paying the price with his career.. The Kaepernick story has a similar shape to the stories of other men blacklisted and blackballed, men like Ring Lardner Jr., Lenny Bruce, and Wayne Collett. The lesson? Protest comes at a price. Integrity has a cost
This is all a shade too dark for a five-year-old to understand but it’s a lesson worth imparting. The lesson is particularly salient as it seems all but assured that my son will grow up in a world where he will forced to take a stand for what is right and just. Fondly do I hope and fervently do I pray that this stand will be civil and non-violent in nature but I can not count on it. Whether or not he comes in for bodily harm, I need my son to know that heroism is not defined solely by victories. In fact, heroism seems tied to how much one is willing to put on the line. And as in all unrigged games, winning is no certain thing.
But just savvying my son to the actions of a hero is a partial and incomplete lesson plan. For the other operative lesson in the Kaepernick scandal — the scandal not that he did not stand but that he is not playing — is that the NFL, as a league, as a cultural pillar, as a $13 billion industry, as a legion of many fans, is not a neutral system. The media complex which has remained silent or else shrugged and tweedled at Kaepernick’s stats is not a necessarily benign. This culture that my son and I are part of is not just and not not racist and not innocent. He and I — white, male, privileged — are not apart from it. We may be innocent bricks, but we’re mortared into an oppressive wall. If it were not so, there might not be anything for Kaepernick to protest. If it were not so and he did protest, he would not have to choose between being a player and being an activist. If it were, there would be nothing for my son to fight to change.
These are all the things I would like to tell him but, of course, by the time he asks, the Kaepernick question will likely be settled. Kaepernick, now speared as a QB, is receiving support from certain African American officers in the NYPD, from Spike Lee, from other, but not many, NFL players. Those who spoke up will be remembered and the silence of others will be duly noted.
By the time my son can act, whether Kaepernick plays again or not will be decided. But what he was fighting for and against will still certainly be very much in play. That those who take a stand must sometimes stand alone will still be true and Kaepernick will still be a hero to me and, I hope, my son too.