Opinion: Finally, Kaepernick's Message is Sinking In

The focus of his protest was lost for a while but now it looks like change may be coming

NBC 7’s Derek Togerson looks at professional football and social awareness in this commentary

In August of 2016 then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a stand by taking a knee. It took a while but finally, 15 months later, after a bit of meandering and bunch of misconception, Kaepernick’s point is finally getting across.

Kaepernick started kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem because he wanted to bring attention to racism and the relationship between law enforcement and African-Americans. I write this as a white male who grew up in the suburbs and has never felt oppression, and even I understand racism is inexplicalby still an issue in this country and this is a conversation that is long, long overdue.

To get his point across Kaepernick chose a symbol that is sure to get attention. In an interview with NFL Media, Kaepernick explained his rationale:

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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."

This came in the midst of high-profile incidents where police officers had interactions with and killed unarmed black men. Kaepernick wanted to say enough is enough and spark some change. But the symbol he chose to focus on is so incredibly important to Americans that the conversation took a detour.

The Stars and Stripes is sacred. Americans have fought and died for that flag and that anthem for centuries. A refusal to stand for the Star Spangled Banner, even though the act is absolutely protected by those very warriors who fought under the flag, is not going to go over well with most Americans.

Very few people have walked in the shoes of both soldier and high-level athlete. One who has is J.P. Bolwahnn, a Navy SEAL who retired from service and played running back for the University of San Diego. So I asked Bolwahnn how he felt about the trend of athletes protesting during the National Anthem:

“Some of my proudest and deepest emotions have been felt while the anthem is playing before a game, as a spectator and as a player. I couldn't ever imagine not standing at attention and giving my respect to my country and fellow service men and women. That is what the anthem means to me. I understand (the athletes) are protesting things that happen in the United States. You can't force someone to do something, like stand at attention, if they don't want to. "The land of the free," right? I don't support the mode of protest and think it could have been approached a different way. But as Americans they have every right to do so. Personally, it just feels like a slap in face as an American and as a veteran, even if that is not their intention.”

That is exactly why the conversation turned away from eliminating racism and refocused on whether or not professional athletes should have to stand for the playing of the National Anthem. This is a deeply emotional issue, one that invokes a visceral response.

Things came to a head in late September of 2017 when someone forgot to turn off the White House Wi-Fi and President Trump tweeted his stream of consciousness about what NFL players were doing. Trump’s tweets sparked a massive round of protests, with entire teams refusing to even show up on the sidelines for the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.

In a way, that was rock bottom … and shockingly it turned out to be necessary. Now that the vitriol has subsided a bit things are swinging back to the original point of the protest and, lo and behold, things are moving in the right direction.

This week the NFL held its annual Fall Meeting and Commissioner Roger Goodell was asked multiple questions about the issue of players protesting during the National Anthem.

It is no secret that attendance and TV ratings for NFL games are down and these protests play a role in that. Goodell said the NFL believes its players SHOULD stand for the National Anthem even if there is no rule saying they have to. And finally the league admitted it understands why the backlash was so violent.

“(The players) are not doing this in any way to be disrespectful to the flag,” said Goodell. “However they also understand how it is being interpreted and we are trying to deal with those underlying issues.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

The NFL has held a series of meetings with players and owners trying to get on the same page and looking at ways to address the actual problem. During the Fall Meeting the league had NYPD Commissioner Jimmy O’Neill and NYPD Police Chief Terry Monahan to talk with players about the relationship law enforcement has in communities.

Several players have taken it upon themselves to truly understand this dynamic. La Costa Canyon High School alum Kenny Stills, now a wide receiver for the Dolphins, has organized ride-alongs with Miami police officers to get a better grasp of the challenges they face on the job. NFL franchises are starting to develop programs to get their players out into their communities more often at events bringing law enforcement and citizens together with the athletes serving as a kind of host.

On Monday the NFL formally wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee pledging the league’s full support for the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2017. The bill, which was introduced to the Senate this month, aims to cut down on the mandatory minimum prison sentences for non-violent drug offenders and increase the amount of rehabilitation options offered after completion of the sentence. So far it has received broad and bipartisan support but has not yet been voted on.

One of the biggest criticisms of the NFL and its players through this process is the perception that they are not actually DOING anything about the social injustice that so desperately needs to be fixed. Now they are actively taking steps, with the help of with law enforcement, to figure out a way to improve race relations in America as they get back to standing for the Star Spangled Banner.

So finally, Colin Kaepernick’s mission to improve the country in an area that was failing can probably be called a success.

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