• Rueben Vargas

In the Shadow of Colin Kaepernick

Special thanks to Keri Garcia for the artwork

Sports in America have had a long and proud legacy of elevating black consciousness and promoting the ideal of social and economic equity for black people across the country. Jessie Owens refused to salute Hitler right after shattering his racist insistence of the superiority of the white race over others during the 1932 Olympics. Jackie Robinson became the highest profile athlete in a major sports league to cross the color line when he became a member of the then Brooklyn Dodgers. Muhamad Ali refused to be drafted as a conscientious objector and had his license revoked and titles vacated. Tommie Smith and John Carlos made the Black Power salute in silent protest during the 1968 Olympics. Each instance was a crucial act of civil disobedience that reverberated across the world. And sports are uniquely equipped to spread and cultivate this consciousness because the core of organized sports, teamwork, is fellowship and solidarity by another name. That proud legacy was carried on by former San Francisco 49ers starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It’s been almost four years to the day when he began his silent protest during the National Anthem. What was intended as a protest against the institutional racism and brutality visited on Black Americans by police departments across the country was distorted and co-opted by the President and his cult as an act of Un-American defiance. Since then, Kaepernick remains as the only NFL player to be blackballed for expressing his rights as an American. But in recent days his protests have taken on a tragic resonance. Within a day of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis PD, massive civil unrest has erupted not just nationwide but across the globe. And as NFL players look back on the nature of police brutality and the importance of protest, three notable responses have come about. Two standing in solidarity while the third opposing.

To say that New Orleans Saints starting quarterback Drew Brees is a beloved figure is an understatement. The city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana love him not just because he led his team to their first Superbowl in the wake of Katrina, it’s how he’s adopted NOLA as his home and given back so much to the community. In late March, the Brees family pledged $5 million in local food relief to the New Orleans area. As part of that initial donation, Brees has also said he will continue the relief for as long as it takes. Nobody would deny his intentions are good. But good intentions mean absolutely nothing if a person is willing to make any sort of exception. And for Brees, it was protesting the flag. In an interview with Yahoo on June 3rd, Brees expressed his opposition to kneeling protests should they return again this season. In the interview, Brees is quoted as saying “I will never agree with anyone disrespecting the flag of the United States of America.” He also noted that both of his grandfathers served in WWII. “So every time I stand with my hand over my heart, looking at that flag and singing the national anthem, that’s what I think about… thinking about all that has been sacrificed, not just those in the military, but for that matter, those throughout the civil rights movement of the 60s….We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart is it shows unity,” he’s further quoted.

I don’t think for a second that Brees is racist, but his refusal to think past his experience as a white man living in America, whose relatives served in the military, betrays how he isn’t willing to look past his identity as a white American. Korey Coleman and Martin Thomas, both black men and hosts of the streaming site Double Toasted, pointed out how whatever opportunities that were offered to his grandfathers who served weren't offered to their fathers who served as well. Worse yet, Coleman and Thomas spoke emphatically how their fathers experienced the harsh, institutionalized racism that was directed to black men like them. It didn’t matter how black veterans risk their lives abroad and come back traumatized. America views them as black and poor and victimizes them for it. Brees’ comments were further met with disdain, disappointment, frustration by athletes across the nation, even by his own teammates. Saints player Malcom Jenkins posted a three minute video where he tearfully explained why his comments were so hurtful to him. Fellow teammates Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas expressed their frustration as well. Even Lebron James joined in on the grievance. The city of New Orleans responded as well, as protesters chanted “Fuck Drew Brees!” as they marched in the streets.

Brees has since issued a thoughtful apology in which he has expressed remorse for his words and pledged to become an active ally. And to his credit, so far he’s walked the walk by directly responding to comments Donald Trump made that he doesn’t need to apologize. And yes, while a lot of sports fans have cried out that Brees “gave in to the mob”, I personally have no reason to doubt Brees’ sincerity and recognize that the loudest among any group tend to be the minority among them. The reason why so many fans, fellow athletes, and sports media personalities reacted so strongly to his initial comments needs to be discussed. As Maria Taylor said on ESPN’s First Take, what Brees initially displayed was not just a lack of awareness but more importantly, a serious deficit of compassion and an act of willful ignorance. Brees has had a long and illustrious career as an NFL quarterback. He’s shared success and failure with countless Black athletes. He might not know about the Black experience but by know he should have an awareness of it. For him to conflate protest as an unpatriotic act of defiance towards our veterans is ludicrous and undermined whatever comradery he developed with past and present teammates, as well as other athletes. It’s not Brees’ character we’re questioning, it’s why he acted against said character in the first place.

In comparison, other quarterbacks have expressed solidarity with fellow teammates and the Black community at large. Russell Wilson, starting quarterback of my Seattle Seahawks, expressed his profound sadness Wednesday in a press conference with the media. In his statement he said that he had a heavy heart over the civil unrest going on in streets across America. “I think that the reality is enough is enough with the situation. The reality is that I think that we have to understand that Black lives do matter. It’s a group of people who are being brutally murdered because of the color of their skin,” Wilson is quoted as saying. On Kaepernick, Wilson said how heavy it was on him because he recognized how Kaepernick was trying to do the right thing. “People may have taken that the wrong way. But I think he was trying to do the right thing. … Colin was trying to symbolize the oppression that was going on in America and has been for 400 years.” Both Kaepernick and Wilson were rivals, playing in the same division and in key playoff games. But right there, Wilson expressed solidarity not just with Kaepernick, but with Black lives across the nation like his. Packers starting quarterback Aaron Rogers expressed solidarity as well. With an image of him and his teammates locking arms in a 2017 game, Rogers wrote the following: “A few years ago we were criticized for locking arms in solidarity before the game. It has NEVER been about an anthem or a flag. Not then. Not now. Listen with an open heart, let’s educate ourselves, and then turn word and thought into action.” While Rogers might be one of my least liked players in the NFL (next to Tom Brady, RichardSherman, Nick Bosa, Aaron Donald…), I commend him for seeing past his privilege as a white man and instead, become an ally to the cause.

The ongoing civil unrest has lit a fire among other players as well. On June 4th, a group of high-profile players responded in a shared video posted by current Superbowl MVP Patrick Mahomes. The one-minute video features Mahomes, Odell Beckham Jr, Ezikiel Eliot, and other high profile players. The players announced that black lives matter, condemned the systematic racism that brutalizes black people, and admitted wrong in staying silent while other players protested said racism. What came about it was nothing less than remarkable. On June 5th, the NFL posted a video featuring commissioner Roger Goodell in which he echoed similar words on condemning systematic racism, how black lives matter, and expressed support in players protesting. Godell also pledged that he and the rest of the league will listen to player’s concerns related to the ongoing protests. It remains to be seen what will come about this open dialogue between the players and the league. It is my hope that should there be an NFL season that the league will not just allow players to protest peacefully, but also bring back Kapernick into the league. I personally believe that at this point he would serve best in a position within the league itself. Perhaps serving in player relations or social justice awareness. The cat’s out of the bag now, and everyone from Commissioner Goodell down knows if they drag their feet on making good with Kapernick, they would risk unrest amongst players and fans alike.

I don’t own a single piece of videogame apparel. I don’t have any shirts or hats or shoes with Fallout, Red Dead Redemption II, or Stardew Valley on them. As much as I might love these games, I won’t wear any apparel because I have no real ownership over them. I don’t feel the same way about my Seahawks. I own multiple jerseys and I’m always wearing a Seahawks hat or beanie. I might not have any financial stake in the team, but I’m part of a community of other ‘Hawks fans across the nation and globe and I wear their colors proudly. I don’t feel that same pride or comfort in being a gamer because of how fragmented and regressive the culture can be. As a leftist, I will remain a sports fan because of the unity, fellowship, and solidarity that is at the heart of its culture. And I’m incredibly thankful and proud how athletes and fans are expressing common cause with the struggle of Black Americans. We will overcome together as we’re all part of one team.