Protesting athletes that are protesting

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has become newsworthy in the NFL this season, not for his play on the field, but for his actions off of it. Off the field actions involving athletes are usually newsworthy for the wrong reasons: domestic violence, drug use, assault, etc.

In an indictment of our sports and entertainment culture, however, what Kaepernick has done is even more controversial than that: protesting during the U.S. National Anthem, otherwise known as the Star Spangled Banner. Kaepernick has received death threats and scathing media coverage from it, and polls have shown that a considerable amount of people in the U.S. disagree with his protests, much more than the people who agree with what he is doing.

Athletes that are protesting is nothing new, however. It is relatively uncommon in professional sports, where athletes are expected to be cerebral geniuses on the field and non-controversial soundbite spouting drones off the field. In the Olympics, however, political protesting has a history. The Olympics are supposed to transcend politics and not to be involved with them, but it is as much a geopolitical pissing contest as it is a platform for the worlds best athletes to perform. Governments even get involved, such as when the U.S. team boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and the Soviets in turn boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Governments have even banned entire countries over racial injustice, such as when they banned South Africa from performing.

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The most famous Olympic protest took place in 1968, during the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. As we all know, 1968 was a year where racial injustice had reached a flashpoint, and the year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. After the 200 meter race, U.S. gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos gave a raised fist in protest when they were awarded the medals. In the picture is silver medalist Peter Norman from Australia, who despite not raising a fist can be seen wearing a Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his jacket, in solidarity. This has become one of the most famous Olympic moments in history, and it was a moment of protest.

In 2016, we still have racial divides and police brutality. I don’t believe that all cops are bad, because that would be a generalization. A cop who unjustly kills someone doesn’t represent his police department anymore than Colin Kaepernick represents the San Francisco 49ers with his protesting. There should be more expected of people who are sworn to serve and protect us, more than a mediocre professional football team, but tell that to the people on ESPN and sports talk radio, where football is more important than inconvenient protesting.

The protests have now spread to college football teams, where players on several teams have protested. On the Michigan Wolverines football team, a few players protested during the U-M/Penn State football game yesterday. After the game, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh (who happens to know Colin Kaepernick quite well, since he used to coach him as the 49ers head coach) was asked about his thoughts on the protests. His response:

“We’re a team as a country,” Harbaugh said. “I’ll tell you what I believe in. I believe in God. I believe in country. I believe in family. I believe in rules of law and following the rules. And I believe that, as a team, the things we embrace, we should embrace – if something is not good for somebody on the team, then we talk about it and we get it fixed together as a team. Those are the things I believe in.
“But that doesn’t mean that just because I’m a football coach, that I can tell other people what to believe or what to think. I support people speaking their own mind and saying what they believe.”

Harbaugh is basically saying that whether he agrees with the protests or not, he supports his players forms of free expression and to think for themselves. He realizes that it is much better to let these players think for themselves and to express themselves constructively, rather than to be draconianally silenced because of what people may or may not think.

What we need in this country is more people who think for themselves, who are willing to stand up for their beliefs, who are willing to hear opposite viewpoints, and who are willing to learn about different points of view. This is part of a college education, no doubt, but it is also part of becoming an adult. Being a social justice warrior and making false accusations of privilege and prejudice while willfully ignoring facts is not free thinking behavior. Living in denial and claiming that police brutality is deserved, and that racism is non-existent is also willfully ignoring facts and is also not free thinking behavior. For a world so focused on black and white, we sure fail to see the gray areas in between. If someone feels like they have been slighted or feels that they need to stick up for a cause, then they have every right to protest. When football players protest, they aren’t representing their respective teams, they are ultimately representing everybody, as human beings. Protesting during the national anthem is arguably the wrong time to do it, but it has certainly gotten our attention, which is the ultimate point of protesting. A protest does no good if nobody is there to see it.

I’d say Jim Harbaugh has it right. Better to raise kids into critical thinking and self-confident adults, instead of having these kids mindlessly being ordered by coaches, administrators, and fans to conform to what they feel is right. Good for him.

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