Kaepernick: An ideal betrayed by footwear

It has been building, this loss of civil discourse. Not that we haven’t been here before; that moment when it is all shouting with no listening.

After the rejectionism of the Tea Party, the dulling safe spaces and trigger warnings, the anger of campus incarnations of #blacklivesmatter. It all seemed to build to the demagoguery of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE on the one hand, and the monastic distance, distrust and whiff of “different rules” for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonChris Murphy’s profile rises with gun tragedies DNC, RNC step up cyber protections Gun proposal picks up GOP support MORE on the other.

And so we have seemed to have reached another sine wave crest of the lack of civil discourse.

Welcome to the conversation Colin Kaepernick.

In era when our sports stars are paid obscene amounts of money, it has fallen to a past-his prime quarterback for the San Francisco 49’ers to inject a degree of civil back into the national conversation.

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For those who have missed it, Kaepernick took to sitting during the national anthem before three of his pre-season NFL games. He says he is not disloyal to the country, but rather it is a silent and personal protest against what he believes is too frequent violence against African-Americans by police and general inequality.

He has been labelled on one side as everything short of traitor by dishonoring the nation and those who serve it in refusing to stand, and hailed as hero by those who believe he is the heir to great strivers for civil rights, and particularly those, like Ali and the sprinters at the 1968 Olympics who used their victory podium to raise their fists in silent statement. Even the President weighed in, citing it as a constitutional right if not perhaps the most effective way of bringing change.

I at first entertained the common sentiment of disdain. Here is an over-compensated professional football player who is paid to entertain with his sporting prowess, using the stage for personal politics.

But as I heard his calm explanations, his respect for the bulk of police and standing against what we all agree is too frequent lethal and unnecessary police violence against black men, I started to think differently. In response to those saying his protest does not solve anything, is that really his place? Isn’t that asking too much. He is an American football player, not a social scientist. Secondly, and more importantly, It was not even whether he was right or wrong, but about what his actions said amidst our collective loss of reason.

It occurred to me that, perhaps unwittingly, Kaepernick was dragging us all back into “civil” discourse. Rather than the most confrontational, bombastic and denigrating volume of both sides of any argument today, this football player was simply stating his beliefs in a manner that did not need to affect anyone else. You say he is being disrespectful, well he says black men are getting beaten by police. You want him to stand, he wants police to stop beating black men. He was willing to explain his views to his teammates. He did not mean to disrespect them. But for him personally, enough was enough.

It is not loud, it is not violent. It is the kind of action in which we once prided our nation as being the leader and model.

Kaepernick is using a stage provided by professional football and his team specifically. Whether he be punished or fired by the team is up to the 49’ers management and their rules and commercial interests. To paraphrase NPR when they fired a commentator for inflammatory language: they may support his right to free speech, they just don’t have to pay for it.

For now it seems the protest has raised sales of Kaepernick’s jersey and he might find a supportive ownership. After all this is San Francisco, the birthplace of the counter-culture even if that has been traded in for uber and Airbnb.

So thank you Kaepernick for reminding us of something of which we had almost lost sight of. The civil part of discourse.

But of course nothing is ever that simple. Just as I started to doff my cap, out comes a picture of Kaepernick at training camp wearing socks bearing policemen depicted as  pigs, a return to today’s public norm of name calling so honed by Donald Trump. 

An ideal betrayed by footwear.

Oh well. It was a nice thought - even if only fleeting. 

Gelb is the director of the Washington Media Institute. Follow him on Twitter @WashMediaInst


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