Editorial: A quarterback discovers a world bigger than football

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

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Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers, sat rather than stood on Friday for the National Anthem before a game.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he explained later. “To me, this is bigger than football.”

Kaepernick’s protest created an immediate backlash on social media, as you might expect, with thousands of angry people questioning his patriotism and demanding that he be run out of the National Football League. But others — plenty of others — just as quickly defended Kaepernick’s First Amendment right to sit or stand as he wishes during the National Anthem. Free speech means free speech. More than that, many of his defenders said, his outrage over American racism is entirely justified, a view we share.

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Agree or not with Kaepernick’s particular form of protest, it’s hard not to feel respect for the man. So few professional athletes dare to speak out at all on anything. They take a stand on nothing even when the world rages, fearful of losing those big contracts to shill athletic shoes and sports drinks. Kaepernick got his priorities right — principles first, paycheck second.

Frankly, we wish we had defended an athlete’s right to free expression in just this way 48 years ago when, in one of the most famous incidents in modern Olympic history, two American medal winners pulled on black gloves and made the “black power” fist salute during a victory ceremony. For that gesture, the United States Olympic Committee banished the two runners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, from the remainder of the Games. A spokesman for the USOC lamented that Smith and Carlos had made the United States “look like the devil.”

But we wrote no editorial about that then, at least not in the first week, nor did our local sports columnists have anything to say. The year was 1968 and the times were incendiary. Somehow we found it much more important, and undoubtedly safer, to write that week about Jackie Kennedy’s marriage to Aristotle Onassis.

Fortunately, one national columnist, the great Red Smith, whose stuff ran in the Sun-Times, did say what had to be said, no hedging.

“The simple little demonstration by Smith and Carlos had been a protest of the sort every black man in the United States had a right to make,” Red Smith wrote. “It was intended to call attention to the inequities the Negro suffers.” And those who punished the two athletes, Smith added, “consider children’s games more sacred than human decency.”

We would be shocked if the owners of the San Francisco 49ers or the NFL attempted to take any action against Kaepernick for sitting out the National Anthem, even if he sits it out all season. If he’s cut from the team, as reportedly he might be, chances are it’ll be because he’s not playing very well.

Call us naive, but we’d like to believe that because of pioneers like Tommie Smith and John Carlos — and Red Smith — athletes are freer today to speak their minds. If only more of them would do so.

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