By the time the final whistle blows on the NFL’s National Anthem controversy, it may be determined that Colin Kaepernick has inadvertently brought down the sport he claims to love, further divided a nation he sought to unite behind his cause, did nothing to bring resolution to the question of racism in law enforcement and removed himself from a game he was meant to play.
One must assume that Kaepernick’s intention was to expose injustice and rally the public – black and white – behind his cause much like Martin Luther King brought attention to the horrifying injustices of segregation and black oppression in the old solid Democrat southland and in the Democrat strongholds in the major cities.
Unfortunately, Kaepernick made a terrible strategic mistake by not emulating King, who never indicted the nation by attacking the Anthem and flag as his symbol of protest. He took his protests to the doorsteps of those responsible. Civil rights leaders of those times protested segregation by sitting in the front of busses and at food counters reserved for whites. They showed up to register to vote despite the threats and beatings. They risked their lives – and often lost them – in exposing the violent brutality of the illegitimate regimes that held power in the south and the political machines that controlled the segregated cities in the north. King confronted the George Wallaces and Richard Daleys of the world – not the American people.
Rather than take the battle to those responsible, Kaepernick chose to protest the flag and, by implication, all that is American – the bad and the good. I can believe that it was not Kaepernick’s intent, but it is how it came across to the public from whom he needed support the most.
Rather than gaining sympathy and support for the cause of equal justice, Kaepernick created a divisive and distracting debate. He made his cause secondary to the question of patriotism. In using the flag, Kaepernick insulted a very large segment of the American people and seemed to reject the main pillar of the American culture – E Pluribus Unum. The greatness of America is that we can interact on critical issues and yet fall back on an understanding that we are basically one people with one set of cultural values at the foundation. Kaepernick took away that fallback position.
Kaepernick’s cause could have been fairly considered, but only once there was an understanding that the conversation was among people who believed in “one nation … indivisible.” Rather than recruiting the public to his cause, he repulsed too many by his method of protest. That makes it quite clear that his strategy – regardless of his intentions -- backfired.
While Kaepernick may have forced the NFL and the individual owners to address the controversy over protesting the flag, he cannot be blamed for the maladroit way they responded. In backing a handful of players “right” to protest and bring politics into an entertainment venue, the backlash and boycott were predictable.
Though much of the public dialogue and support for the protests came from people claiming the right of free speech, it is not a constitutional right in the workplace. If a waiter stands up and accuses the President of violations of the Constitution, he or she can be fired. The owners could have required one hundred percent standing respect for the flag. If they had done that, there would have been a short-lived howl from the left, a few recalcitrant players may have been fined or fired, but things would have returned to normal and the games would go on without political corruption. More importantly for the owners and players, ticket sales and viewership would not have tanked.
In joining in solidarity with the protesting players, the owners put themselves, their teams and the sport at odds with most Americans – and an even bigger majority of the fans. The unique aspect of American football is that the players are overwhelmingly black, and the fans are overwhelmingly white – and largely more conservative. That is why the backlash boycott had the impact it had.
Having been sacked in the first go-around, the league tried to make up yardage with a compromise, as they saw it. Players who did not wish to show respect for the National Anthem and the flag could simply stay in the locker room until the traditional show of patriotic unity was over. Apparently, the league thought this variation on the same theme of disrespect would resolve the situation. Arguably, it may have even worsened it.
The protesting players were offended by the imposition of a rule that they must stand for the Anthem or stay out of sight. The player’s union weighed in, claiming that the rule was a violation of the contract. Such rules must be negotiated. Fans, who were offended by the sitting and then kneeling through the Anthem, saw the new rule as a distinction without a difference. As far as they were concerned, the NFL had doubled down on allowing protest in the workplace – a workplace many had seen as a respite from all the political maelstroms of the day.
The League and the owners have now been sacked for the second time. So badly have the owners mishandled all this that it is virtually impossible to see how they can recover. It is difficult to see any pro-active policy that will satisfy both sides of the controversy. It seems that the only answer is based on the Bible’s encouragement that “this too shall pass away.” How and when is anybody’s guess.
Larry Horist is a conservative activist with an extensive background in economics, public policy and political issues. Clients of his consulting firm have included such conservative icons as Steve Forbes and Milton Friedman, and he has served as a consultant to the White House under Presidents Nixon and Reagan. He has testified as an expert witness before numerous legislative bodies, including the U. S. Congress and lectured at Harvard University, Northwestern University, Florida Atlantic University, Knox College and Hope College. An award winning debater, his insightful and sometimes controversial commentaries appear frequently on the editorial pages of newspapers across the nation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.