Part of any country’s character is defined by the citizens’ sense of pride and nationalism. Positive recognition in the form of awards for global achievement and national athletic accomplishment all build collective pride – everywhere. We celebrate our individual and team medalists’ performance in the Rio Olympics of 2016, save for a handful who voiced opinions or just improperly voiced. We revel in the display of patriotism and spirit.
Americans should all be proud of Bob Dylan’s receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for lifetime contribution to art and literature, but I think that during the start of his career he had several critics and detractors. Perhaps his initial fame just brought him attention at the wrong time, there was a nice division in American attitudes and Dylan had the offensive nature of rubbing against tradition with tradition. Later he bruised his own positive supporters by taking steps to grow his style and art in different directions.
Now we face “the knee” taken originally by Colin Kaepernick during pre-season NFL games, and later joined by other athletes and teammates. Yes, it is Number 7 of the San Francisco 49’ers exercising an individual protest that offends the National standard of behavior. In all the media coverage and pictures of this demonstration posture, I’ve not once seen disrespectful behavior (no middle finger, no lapse of concentration, no reaction to boos). He simply uses a reverent gesture to refuse support of his country because he feels it operates unfairly to so many of its people – African Americans and other minorities. I’m going to guess he pays taxes or will have to, I’m also going to guess that he will vote, and I know he’s losing future endorsements of mainstream American business as the demonstration of conscience continues. He seems competent enough to make that decision and justifies it well by citing that the issue of cultured-discrimination is “bigger than football.”
Sadly and realistically, the cultural workaround to resolving the equality issue can’t occur in the span of Colin’s active professional sports career. He will be “kneeing-it-out” for the duration of his contract if he is the man of character that I suspect he is. Like the late Muhammad Ali, who refused the draft, lost his titles and was denied boxing licenses for three years (argued as the prime of his career), and ultimately restored himself to his “greatest” title, Colin will encounter his sports mortality. He should be able to find satisfaction with groups that will continue to pursue unilateral justice. If you listen to the hatred directed at him, you can’t help but hear the same epithets that have been thrown at all of the past rebels with cause. If you listen to assessments of his talent, they are all submerged into the same soup … “it’s not over until it’s over.”
In investigating the most historic and iconic single protest photograph of Tommie Smith (USA-Gold) and John Carlos (USA-Bronze) and seemingly captive Peter Norman (AUS-Silver) after the men’s 200m race, I discovered much about the photo that wasn’t evident or released at the time. The gloves and the raised hands in tribute to Black Power were just part of the scene, easily splitting the national psyche on race relations. That was the image that made the cover of the media news at the time. Behind that photo was an essay of symbolism in what Smith and Carlos wore and how they wore their outfits, and while Peter Norman seemed displaced, all three athletes wore the protest symbol of their time – the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badge affixed to their uniforms. All experienced struggle in their life after Olympic glory (or ridiculed success) and maintained the general optimism toward a less biased future in the US and Australia. As a testament to the closeness of the three athletes on that victory stand, Smith and Carlos both were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in 2006. Sculptures, murals, and other artwork now commemorate this former “blasphemous” event from the Mexico City Olympics of 1968. The action and the ideas have since become tribute to the spirit of protest on multiple continents and in multiple forms (literature, song, art) to the degree that one might say “the whole world is watching … now.”
Anger toward Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers, and the NFL is futile. Everyone is holding their ground in sensitivity of constitutional rights and if there was no loss of money involved than either more athlete’s or more sponsors would be making noise. He’s not attacking the veterans, the public, or the ideal America. Colin is reminding America of its shortcomings, those parts of what makes us not-so-great amidst of sea of potential greatness. I think we resent Colin for invading our rest and relaxation space with his message, but for many it’s a message that needs to be seen as “bigger than the evening news.”