As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com), August 2020
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Bi-weekly status check: it has been 92 days since the NBA suspended its season and 36 days since schools closed. The NBA is targeting a late July return in an Orlando bubble; hopefully everyone stays healthy and a season is salvaged. If schools reopen on schedule later this summer, and families feel confident in this return to normalcy (as much as one can living with COVID-19), then we will be in a much better place.
We are not in a good place at present.
In the 12 years this column has appeared in this fine paper, no entries have generated as many responses as those covering Colin Kaepernick’s protest of racial injustice during the national anthem. Some feedback was positive. Most was flippant defiance. All was welcomed.
The disagreements with expressed opinions were rooted in the common interpretation of Kaepernick’s protest as anti-American and anti-military. Kaepernick denied his act was either, even switching from sitting on the bench during the anthem to kneeling, after thoughtful conversations with Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret. But the die was cast for certain cross-sections of America – Kaepernick was ungrateful, didn’t appreciate his country, its military or his afforded opportunities.
Power-brokers enforced this narrative. In 2016, then presidential candidate Donald Trump suggested Kaepernick, “…try another country” and has gleefully criticized the former quarterback in the years since. The NFL first condemned Kaepernick’s actions, then eventually banned kneeling during the anthem. But it’s what the league did quietly – blackballing Kaepernick and ending his career (an objective analysis of employed NFL quarterbacks from 2017-2019 supports no other conclusion) – that spoke the loudest.
The most frustrating part of the bastardization of Kaepernick’s message was that the original, real and critically important issue he sought to combat – systemic racism and police mistreatment of minorities – was lost in the static. The anti-American, anti-military angle was his critics’ primary fuel, but it would be naïve to think that that argument wasn’t, at least to some extent, a convenient cover for the heart of the matter - a fundamental disbelief in the validity of Kaepernick’s beef with white America and police authority.
Almost four years after Kaepernick first took a knee, and after more minority lives have been lost while in police custody or at the hands of racist vigilantes, here we are again. But this time, aside from now President Trump’s callous rhetoric, much has changed. The issue isn’t being clouded by tangential debates over the merits and motivations of a genuflecting quarterback. No, there is tragic, undeniable evidence in 2020 of the injustice Kaepernick tried to illuminate in 2016 – a disturbing nine minute video of George Floyd, handcuffed, held face down in the street under a white police officer’s knee, desperately voicing his distress, while his life is slowly taken.
Now protests rage in urban and rural America and around the globe. Sadly, it took Freddie Gray, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and many other victims to realize the pressing truth Kaepernick was conveying in his silent but powerful act four years ago. America is in crisis again over an old, recurring and disgraceful flaw – systemic racism.
Still, somewhere in all this death and unrest is an opportunity. This feels different from Ferguson, Charlottesville and Baltimore. It is bigger and the push to “fix this” is coming from black and white America. There are more voices screaming “enough” than ones snickering, waiting for the chaos to subside and planning a return to status quo. Drew Brees issued an apology after regurgitating tired old criticisms of Kaepernick; he then sent a note challenging Trump to deeper reflection. Even Roger Goodell, the kingpin of Kaepernick’s silencing and a political operative for the White House, admitted “We were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier.” It was an unfashionably late course-correction, failed to mention Kaepernick by name and will be proven authentic only by action, but the NFL’s advocacy is significant.
What must Kaepernick be feeling now? Frustrated, no doubt, that more – especially his employer - didn’t understand four years ago. But mostly hopeful, I think, that the movement he envisioned and the change he desired might finally be underway.