At every turn in American culture, be it politics, sports or the corporate world, the citizenry is constantly taught, some would argue brainwashed, to believe in the Cult of the Uniform & The Flag, be it that of the armed forces, local law enforcement, or sports. It’s a veritable religion that one ever dares to criticize at their peril. Political Correctness 2.0 – at every turn in the schools, movies, politics, business, or on the football grid iron, baseball diamond and basketball court – teaches young and old alike to believe in ‘Law & Order’, ‘My Country Right or Wrong’ or, in the case of American sports, ‘My Team Right or Wrong’. Whether it’s on Main Street USA, the local sports arena or some distant, foreign battlefield, whatever aggressive actions are needed to be waged to defeat whomever is deemed to be the adversary or hated ‘Other’ on the opposing side, is generally deemed acceptable with no holds barred and few questions asked.
As a result, the American populace, annually, willingly and gladly, gives up however untold billions of dollars of their hard-earned monies to: continually expand America’s gargantuan military forces, larger than all the world’s military forces combined; pay for local law enforcement anti-riot, anti-terrorist ‘United Shield’, SWAT, and ‘Wall of Separation’ border defenses against the unwanted; give away to world dictators and authoritarian governments however much monies and military hardware are needed to murder and subdue whatever rebellions, civil society movements or societal protests among their own people, as well as; passively accept the fact that our finest hero-warrior athletes are paid a veritable king’s ransom just to entertain us for a few hours each week. All these monies are willingly given even when this means that the American public itself must forego the benefits of their labors and suffer the constant stripping of their own desperate basic needs, like: a minimum livable hourly wage; universal healthcare; critical public school funds; municipal infrastructure for police-fire-rescue emergency services; tax relief for the lower and middle classes; social services for the homeless and destitute, as well as for the many institutions dedicated to the general enhancement of America’s cultural, social, spiritual life. It’s all “Guns & Roses”, as the saying goes.
So, now turn to every major American sports event and ask what element in these events, that once were just more about pure entertainment, might provoke and embed such blind, mindless obedience to such realities? Long before 9/11, many of America’s professional sports teams held flag-raising, national anthem ceremonies. But since 9/11, such rituals have escalated in drama and scope, which begs many questions of, “What came first: The chicken or the egg?” Is the cause because of the degree to which the U.S. Government and its military branches have since focused their attention upon national paid patriot propaganda in sports, purely for recruiting purposes, or, as a way to unduly influence the attitudes of the American populace towards war and militarism in general? Is that why they sponsor ceremonial rituals such as the repetitive singing of the Star-Spangled Banner national anthem at every major American sports event? Why aren’t such rituals likewise ever required at the beginning of movies, plays or other major cultural gatherings and events? Or has it always been intentionally and purposefully cultivated and enhanced through sports because these rituals in the military and sports world somehow respond to the same primal, inherent psychological need? Can the natural inclination within the American psyche and personality that leans towards reactionary, right-wing, militaristic attitudes and beliefs be traced back to certain defining displaced impulses of patriotism within the nation’s very origins; as manifested by the erection of so many controversial memorial statues to otherwise questionable military hero’s of the American Confederacy, the American Indian Wars or a long line of ruthless, warmongering Presidents from Andrew Jackson’s up to present-day Trump and all those Presidents who will come after them?
The United States is the only country in the world that requires its professional sports teams and the general public to adhere to such patriotic rituals around every sports event. Before 9/11, many professional American teams even stayed in their locker rooms during the playing and singing of the Star Spangled Banner national anthem, even though the historical record shows that in the much-touted ‘American Game’ of baseball, the ritual goes back to the days of World War One, until the National Baseball Association finally made it a requirement in 1942 during World War Two, with the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League following suite in 1946. But it wasn’t until many years later that America’s teams were finally expected or actually required to come out of their locker rooms to participate in these patriotic rituals. Since 9/11, the U.S. Government and its military branches have even signed “paid patriotism” contracts with the five major American sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, MLS), not counting NASCAR sponsorships, for ceremonies to raise the flag, sing the national anthem, hold ‘Support The Troops’ nights, or sponsor recruitment drives for ‘new troops’ or a ‘fresh supply of blood’, as some say, which now is estimated to total over $100 million; which the Department of Defense can’t even fully account for.
So, at the beginning of each sports event, the citizenry is called upon en masse to dutifully rise to the occasion and stand at attention to show their unquestioning unity every time a military guard, who represents the solidarity between all branches of the armed services, solemnly marches in with the Star-Spangled Banner waving, to be greeted by some famous personage who will sing the country’s national anthem in homage to war, the nation’s continued survival and future success for ‘God & Country’ on the playing field or battlefield.
The citizenry in attendance can either choose to stand with a vacant look on their face, begrudgingly mumble the words or loudly sing along with their right hand held over their heart; as a wing of the latest military combat fighter jets, in a noisy, awe-inspiring demonstration, does a dramatic low fly-over to display for all to see and marvel at the awesome, invincible power of the state. As they listen to or sing the anthem’s lyrics, that some consider racist, what are they thinking about when they repeat the words that, in its third verse, speak of “No refuge could save the hireling and slave (i.e. who support British imperialism rather than American)/And the Star Spangled Banner in triumph doth wave/O’er the land of the free/And the home of the brave/Then conquer we must/When our cause it is just/And this be our Motto/In God is Our Trust” Are they thinking of America’s long history: of slavery, systemic racism and social injustices in American society; the Indian Wars that cleared out the native populations from almost everywhere in the land where white immigrants chose to settle; the endless War of Terror in the Middle East and the constant blowback that it is continues to create? The lights are on but no one really knows if anyone is home because the masses of blank faces in the stands always somehow remain vacant! Once this most American of America’s rituals is completed, a military figure often is then even chosen to flip the coin to see who goes first when the command is given, “Let’s Play Ball!”
But if, at any time, on or off the field of play, some professional athlete every dares to question the basic underlying premise of what all this represents, or challenge the everyday truth that it attempts to disguise or misrepresent, there is soon hell to pay. Not only can this quickly earn the athlete the wrath of the U.S. Government and Corporate America, but also the enmity among many sports fans, coaches, sportswriters, and the American people in general. This is what happened to one of America’s premier professional athletes – Colin Kaepernick – in the National Football League who dared to question the premise of it all. What he has since come to represent and symbolize to the world might best be characterized as: America’s Red, White & Blue versus Kaepernick’s San Francisco 49’er Red & Gold jersey.
Colin Kaepernick was the former premier Super Bowl 2013 quarterback of the San Francisco 49’ers, but currently is a free agent out of a job, with the ‘Mark of Cain’ placed upon his head, by almost every team in the National Football League, because of his controversial protest that, though now has been concluded since early 2017, occurred during his tenure as a 49er when he choose to sit or kneel at the beginning of every preseason game in 2016 rather than stand in allegiance to the flag during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner national anthem.
His story is a classic tale of ‘The Darkness versus the Light’ that exists in America on so many political, cultural, intellectual, racial levels. His is the story of how America’s basically conservative, reactionary, sport world’s commonly castigates, stigmatizes and mistreats ‘The Other’- ‘The Outsider’ – and, consequently, too often never learns critically-important lessons about life and themselves from people different than the majority of its members.
Eventually joined in his protests by athletes from teams around the league (Denver Broncs, Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots, Los Angeles Rams) who sat, knelt, defiantly raised their fists in the air or locked arms in unity; it was very different when Colin Kaepernick first set out to make his silent ‘sitting protests’. Then he was all alone when he chose not to pay homage during the playing of the national anthem. Though no one yet knew it, he had set out on a personal quest to cast attention on the systemic racism and social injustices that exists in American society, and personally show his support, by putting his body and his money where his mouth was, on behalf of people of color who are the victims of police brutality and other forms of systemic racism. Few knew about the many death threats, the burning’s in effigy, the hate mongering tht soon followed.
Initially, Kaepernick’s lone protest went unnoticed until, when asked the question at a press conference, he humbly said, “When there is a significant change in the way Black Americans and people of color are being oppressed, and I feel the flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and the country is representing people the way it’s supposed to, then I’ll stand!” He adding, “This protest isn’t for me. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and effect change. I’m in the position now where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.”
Kaepernick’s personal civil rights protest follows in the footsteps of a long line of athlete’s – going back to time of Mohammed Ali and even earlier, up to present day star athletes – like the NBA’s Dwayne Wade, Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony and Abdul-Rauf – who also have protested in their own way against the United States for the same or similar reasons.
His protest can be traced back, as well, to the very beginning of his own life’s intense drive to succeed in spite of a host of extremely difficult early life experiences, like: the struggle to define himself as the bi-racial offspring of a white Irish-Czech mother who abandoned him at birth and wouldn’t even allow her own parents to help raise him, with an absentee black American father he never met or even knew anything about because his birth mother refused to divulge anything about him; adopted and raised instead by a white German family and siblings, struggling all the while never to be either black or white but whomever he needed to be in the face of so much cultural and societal bias he faced regarding race, religion and skin tone issues in America; coming to terms, at the same time, with his beliefs as one who was baptized as a Methodist, confirmed as a Lutheran, attended a Baptist church, yet came to love the Muslim religion the more he learned about it from those loved ones around him; being so sickly as a youth that he was treated twice for cystic fibrosis, before ever becoming a star “Bo Jackson” athlete at every sport he ever attempted; overcoming even the general sports bias that African Americans were considered not smart enough to play the position of quarterback, and then; barely recruited out of high school and offered only one football scholarship out of over 100 applied for, before finally; he was selected late in the 2011 NFL Draft, as the sixth quarterback way down the list, in spite of the fact that his throwing arm made him the first player in NCAA history to throw for more than 10,000 yards and run for over 4,000 yards, with a 90 mph fastball that made him even good enough for a professional baseball career.
His eventual silent protest on the football field isn’t the only form of protest Kaepernick has ever undertaken in his lifetime. Using his own body as a cultural, religious, moral and ethical form of social media – a holy flesh billboard, as it were – his tattoos, that cover a large portion of his upper torso, visually express to others his world views on life. Each tattoo somehow speaks to “being respected”, “taking on enemies without fear” and “putting forth in one’s life God as their guide against doubters”.
Koepernick openly admits he got all his tattoos for his own self first, and then afterwards to show fans and the public alike what he chooses to believe in. For his left tricep he displays a line of scripture from Psalm 27:3 (“Though an Army besiege me, my heart will not fear, though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.”)
Written on his right shoulder is a scroll that reads, “You armed me with strength for battle, you made my adversaries bow at my feet.” To Kaepernick, it simply means that, “The Lord has given me all the tools to be successful. I just have to go out and do my part to uphold that.”
Expressing the almost fanatical struggle he has had all his life to succeed, the bold billboard lettering across his chest heralds “Against All Odds!” While on his right bicep, one tattoo shows two hands clasped in prayer above which are the words “To God the Glory”, and another tattoo that reads “Faith”, which he ritualistically kisses every time he scores a touchdown, that has since come to be infamously known as Kaepernicking. “This ritual is my way of saying”, he confides, “that I don’t really care what people think about this kissing gesture. God has brought me this far. He has laid out a phenomenal path for me. And I can’t do anything but thank him.” On his back are still more inked mosaics created by tattoo artist Nes Andiron (Endless Ink’s Studio) that call together “Good vs Evil”, in the form of angels and demons, to express the tug-of-war he has felt throughout his life, in and out of sports. Tellingly, his favorite tattoo of all declares, “My Gift is My Curse”.
But the time finally came when the right-wing, racist corporate elements within the NFL, the corporate ‘Sports America’ media world and the American public itself, always suspicious and fearful of those who hold strong political, religious beliefs that run against the grain of America’s acceptable propaganda of itself, began to scream “Enough is Enough!”. Press releases then began to circulate, referring to his fetishism with tattoos as being “more fit for prison culture than the NFL”; while various columnists described Kaepernick as someone who, “looks more like a prison inmate than an NFL quarterback”, or as if, “he looks like he just got paroled”. Others began to make snide innuendos like, “Approximately 98.7 percent of the inmates of California State prisons have tattoos, while less than 1.3 percent of NFL quarterbacks have tattoos”.
That’s when a huge firestorm of social media talk, death threats, vicious hate mail erupted over issues of culture, race and gender that called into question a slew of issues over such matters as: the general acceptance or rejection of different cultures in America; the generational gap that the acceptance or aversion to tattoos represents in the general society, not to mention the fact that some NFL team owners quietly but firmly advocate/demand that their players, especially their quarterbacks, keep their bodies tattoo-free. This firestorm led to the scrutiny of innumerable racial attitudes in America over matters of: skin tone, native intelligence of people of color and core issues of abortion or giving up babies at birth for adoption, to name but a few.
Many issues swirled around Colin Kaepernick over the complex ethnic and social background that he has, that can’t so easily be categorized, pigeonholed or stereotyped without also revealing, at the same time, something about the prejudices of those attempting to do all the defining. Soon revealed was the embarrassing fact that American society and Sports America hadn’t progressed as much or as far as many would like to think they had.
In that moment that he chose to kneel in protest to the national anthem, while others mutely stood and looked on, he wasn’t only questioning himself and his beliefs but also those of everyone else in the world. But by the reaction that Kaepernick swiftly received from so many different quarters and sectors of American life, it was clear that America, by and large, doesn’t ever take kindly to being put up against a wall and challenged to plainly verbalize its beliefs.So, instead, much of its ire was directed towards the messenger rather than the message he bore. Consciously or unconsciously, the epithets that began to be thrown Kaepernick’s way were being thrown right back at those making them that became an ugly mirror-image of America to itself.
Suddenly liberal fans and sportswriter’s alike also began pushing back against all the racist, bigoted corporate messaging about the issue of tattoos and the way American society in general boxes people in and stereotypes them because of race, gender or sexuality. Social media questions began to ask: “Is this how we’re now going to define leaders by how many tattoos they do or don’t have? Is the position of an NFL quarterback only for neat, clean-cut, tattoo-less, white guys? Does the same slide rule apply to politicians? How many tattoos do the bad ones have compared to the good ones? Look at the bad things that politician’s like Obama, Clinton and Trump have done. How many tattoos do they have on their body?
But this was only the beginning ‘tip-of-the-iceberg’ of the deluge of questions and firestorm that was raised once Kaepernick simply dared to exercise his First Amendment rights under the Constitution, and speak out about so many things that are still wrong in America that its national anthem’s ”In God is Our Trust” lyrics belie. His quest was the simple challenge to America to ask itself, “What do all these things really mean to you?”
Yet this simple, forthright challenge instead continued to enflame and provoke the mountain of vicious, ugly commentary that it did, calling into question everything from: Kaepernick’s intelligence, race, culture, religion, manhood, character and abilities as a football player; his critics variously disparaging him as being everything from an “uneducated idiot or coward” to being “an insult to anyone with a working brain.” Characterized as “a lost and psychologically-unstable person” or “whiny, indulgent crybaby”, many fans either booed him after every snap of the football, or during every ‘Kaepernick Kiss’ he made following the scoring of a touchdown; or shouting at him from the stands “U-S-A! U-S-A!”, to further rub salt in America’s long-standing open wound that has never been properly treated. He was also widely ridiculed as an “ignorant, washed-up millionaire athlete who just wants some attention”, or viciously mocked in a ‘South Park’ TV season trailer that featured an insulting “Colin Kaepernick Anthem”, while being further insulted by those like the country-grunge rocker Kid Rock, who shouted expletives about him at his concerts, calling into question “Who is his real father? Who is his real mother?”
Dismissive African American football players, who charged, “Kaepernick’s not even Black!”, without even dealing with the merits of his protest message, were smartly answered back in the social media and mainstream media with a flurry of ‘skin tone’ issues and questions that posed: What does it mean to be born black, whether it be by two black parents, two mixed racial parents, raised by black parents or adopted by white parents? What does that mean to the adopted child on a personal, cultural, activist level in America? Even if he were fully white, can’t he equally care about systemic racism in America against people of color?
Issues of Abortion and Adoption also rose to the surface when Kaepernick’s biological mother, who gave him up as an infant, admitted that she had refused to allow even her own parents to help raise him at birth, and refused to even divulge anything at all to anyone about who his real black American father was. But when she hostilely went one step further by criticizing Kaepernick for “disrespecting and bringing shame to the very country and family who afforded you so many blessings.”, her commentary, in return, provoked an immediate flurry of hostile reactions that variously screamed, “Seriously, lady, you have some bloody gall publically scolding the adult son you didn’t raise.” It led still other mother’s across the political spectrum to then speak about what it means to them to keep or give up a baby at birth. One mother noting, “I had a baby when I was a senior in high school, but I didn’t give up. I did whatever it took to survive for us both”, while another mother added, “Placing my son for adoption is NOT giving up. It’s giving him the life he deserved and love beyond comprehension.” Still other mothers gave back-handed compliments to his birth mother, saying, “Kudos to you, Girl. You didn’t abort him. You gave him life and he went on to do something great. You should be proud instead of outraged with a chip on your shoulder.”
NFL football games often have military Salute the Troops nights, and some fans and sportswriters also seized the opportunity to jump on Kaepernick’s perceived anti-American, anti-military protest by holding up signs in the stands that screamed, “Kaepernick#7 Have You Thanked a “VET” lately For Your Right To Disrespect Our Flag?” This led others to retort back on his behalf, “His protest doesn’t “give” Americans the right to protest. The U.S. Constitution does!” While the man on the hot seat himself commented, “I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country, but this country isn’t holding up their end of the bargain. Men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly and murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.”
Thousands of #Veterans For Kaepernick quickly objected to the fact that America thinks it somehow is “honoring” veterans when it tries to shut Kaepernick up, and they also began to refuse to stand for the national anthem, saying “His protest resonates with those of us soldiers who feel we’ve been lied to.” Other veterans in tweets and post on social media declared “Were not going to risk our lives in wars in the Middle East so that the American state can kill others with impunity in the United States.”
Finally, on the eve of the signing of his new $126 million contract with the San Francisco 49er’s, Kaepernick used yet a new tattoo on his body, as the artistic ‘social media’ canvas that it is, to send yet a further message to the world of the corrupt nature of money in general and specifically the moneyed, power-based nature of Corporate NFL football and American way of life that supports it. He also used the unveiling of the tattoo to publically announce that he would use some of his new funds to continue to remind the world of these facts. To this end, he commissioned the well-known ink artist Carlos Torres to create on him the tattoo “Money is the Root of All Evil”, that featured a biblical Adam and Eve theme, with a hand holding an apple, while money grows from the roots and branches of a tree, as in the Bible. This only served to further grate upon many coaches, staff, players and management in the corporate NFL world.
A statement made at the time his protest first began, succinctly expresses Kaepernick’s overview of it all when he declared, “This is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way when there are bodies in the streets and people getting paid and getting away with murder.”
However, in 2017, after all the dust has settled, Kaepernick still remains an unemployed and, perhaps, as some would say, a forever embattled and unemployable free agent because the NFL powers-that-be, and the American people themselves, have placed their own ‘Mark of Cain’ tattoo upon his head. Only one team, the Seattle Seahawks, has even deigned to meet with Kaepernick, but have let it be known that they have no interest in signing a contract with someone who is considered persona non grata.
Perhaps it’s now time for Kaepernick to give the NFL a pass and seriously consider going to Canada and trying out for the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes and, if chosen for the team, see if he can match the awesome record of their now retired legendary quarterback Anthony Calvillo.
Jerome Irwin is a freelance writer and author of “The Wild Gentle Ones; A Turtle Island Odyssey” (www.turtle-island-odyssey.com), a three volume account of his travels as a spiritual sojourner, during the 1960’s, 70’s & 80’s, among Native Americans & First Nations in North America. It encompasses the Spiritual Renaissance & Liberation Movements among native peoples throughout North America during the civil rights era. More recently, Irwin authored a series of articles on the “NODAPL/KEYSTONE XL/CLIMATE CHANGE” protests against the United States Government. Irwin also is the publisher of The Wild Gentle Press. He also was raised in San Francisco, attended as a youth all the 49’er games at The City’s old Kezar Stadium during its era of “Twenty Yards & a Cloud of Dust”, and was later coached in high school football by Visco Grgich, a no-nonsense, hard-nosed, 49er linesman who played football when players once played “both ways”, on offense and defense, for a solid 60, commercial-free, minutes and for it received $500 per game for all the pressure and effort.