Colin Kaepernick and the Perils of Patriotism as Fandom

For citizens of a country founded on rebellion, many people in the United States seem inordinately resentful of someone like Colin Kaepernick speaking their mind.

I’m not a fan of American football. Indeed, sports, in general, hold no interest for me. You take a ball from one side of a field of grass to the other side while people try to stop you. I don’t care how much strategy may be involved, that is what football is: accompanying a dumb object on a pointless trip rife with impediments — rather like National Lampoon’s Vacation movie. (I also fail to see any merit in Chevy Chase, by the way). Aside from flashbacks to elementary school and my attempts to traverse the playground with my lunch money intact, I have no way of relating to football.

Being that it doesn’t matter to me, I never know what’s going on with the sport and its teams. I never know who is in the playoffs or what player is currently in jail — none of it. My stepfather and both brothers care deeply about sports, but when they talk about it I just imagine the teacher from Peanuts is talking. I smile, nod my head, and like Charlie Brown, offer assurances that I was listening all along.

This is why I was somewhat surprised to find that for the last several months now, I have been hearing about (and paying attention to) the situation surrounding Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, and his protests regarding the national anthem. Notice I do not, as some writers do, profess that this is a protest against the national anthem — it is not, and that’s an important distinction.

Kaepernick claims that he’s protesting the inequitable treatment of people of color in a country that prides itself on equality. He takes a knee during the anthem in order to call attention to the unconscionable murder, unreasonable incarceration, and systemic misery of people of color in a country that promises life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (and promised those things at the inception of the country when it held blacks in slavery, justifying that obvious contradiction by proclaiming them something less than human).

There’s no need to rehearse the history of Kaepernick’s symbolic defiance. It’s well documented and familiar. What I’m interested in here is the vitriolic and unreasonable reactions the protest has inspired and, more to the point, the cause of that vitriol. For citizens of a country founded on rebellion, protest, and attempts to speak (some sort of) truth to power, many people in the United States seem inordinately resentful of someone speaking their mind when that person decries the racial inequity on which the country was founded and which persists in pernicious ways today despite our best (or is it our hypocritical?) efforts to eradicate it.

Kaepernick has reportedly received death threats. Journalists such as Nancy Armour of USA Today, who have had the temerity to defend Kaepernick’s actions, have received spiteful, obscenity-laced comments wishing ill upon the writers and Kaepernick himself. Several commentators, such as Josh Peter (also of USA Today), have felt compelled to chastise Kaepernick for not doing enough.

Kaepernick has raised awareness, inspired discussion, donated money and encouraged donations to charities, but Peter criticizes him for not having inspired more African Americans to vote. Kaepernick seems to feel that this election offers no legitimate and reasonable option (he’s not alone in this thought and it’s his right to entertain it). Peter counters this assertion by claiming that several leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement support Clinton, ergo she must be the black choice. Peter actually asserts that having three Black Lives Matter leaders supporting Clinton is “evidence that she is more committed than Trump to issues of social justice.” Either Peter is being disingenuous or he fails to understand the definition of the word “evidence”.

Many critics of Kaepernick’s actions insist that he’s being ungrateful. They point out that he was raised by white parents (so what does he have to complain about?), they point out that he’s rich (so what does he have to complain about?). These dismissals cannot be serious and yet they are meant to be. They imply that one can only object to the status quo if one is a victim of the current system. Only the disadvantaged ought to feel bad about injustice — after all, they are the ones suffering it.

To entertain this thought is to assume that we do not all suffer from injustice. Even if you live a life of privilege and comfort, if that privilege and comfort is founded on inequity, you suffer — on a basic human level, you either suffer or become callous, indifferent, and increasingly immoral. There’s another problem here — let’s face it, if a poor person engaged in some symbolic form of protest it would have no efficacy whatsoever. Imagine your local homeless person sitting out the national anthem — who would care or deign to notice? The fact that Kaepernick is privileged (and as far as I know he has never claimed otherwise) is precisely what makes his stance (or rather his refusal to stand) effective. People notice not because it’s blatantly clear that there’s a problem here concerning racial injustice (although they ought to notice for that reason), but rather because this man of relative prominence is saying something about it.

It’s most fitting, I think, that this controversy should arise in a manner that centers on the sport of football. Far too many people in the United States treat patriotism as though it were a form of fandom. We revere our country the way we do our favorite football team. Political parties are little more than tailgate parties with neckties. We turn drunk on the notion that we are part of something in which we hardly participate at all. We invest in it the way we do a football franchise. We pay for our ticket and watch the spectacle but we don’t actually play the game.

We root for our team and imagine all the other teams are inferior. It doesn’t matter that other teams may be winning at the moment (and far too many people see the world, even in the current concern for globalization, in terms of winners and losers), we know that ours is the best and if they don’t make the playoffs this time, well… there’s always next year. The fact remains that our team is superior, regardless of the facts of the matter.

This element of fandom (and patriotism) has always intrigued me. Isn’t it odd that the majority of people who root for a team, root for that team because they were born in the state where that team plays, and yet they insist that their team is the best? Does superlative status rely upon proximity to one’s place of birth? This applies in a rather frightening manner to patriotism as well. That is why the most frequent rejoinder to the voice of protest, once the objector runs out of other ideas, is “if you hate this country so much, why don’t you leave?” I used to dismiss this provocation as mere puerility, but it occurs far too often statistically to ignore. I no longer believe it’s the last desperate cry of exasperation. People seem to think this is an appropriate response.

That’s because the one thing you don’t do when you are a true fan is to speak ill of your team. (This much I learned from my stepfather and my brother Brent, who are both Redskins fans, when my other brother Wes, a Ravens fan, convinced Brent that the Redskins had some defects in their defense; my stepfather was outraged at Brent’s minimal acquiescence.) But this isn’t how we should treat our sense of patriotism — particularly not in a country supposedly founded on the issues of individual liberty, individual thought, and an individual pursuit of justice, if not happiness.

We no longer live in a world where we can afford for there to be an “us” and a “them”. We no longer live in a world where we can root for one country to “win” over another. As we can discern so clearly in the case of Syria, when one country loses we all lose. The age of the zero-sum game in international politics ought to be over and we ought all to disavow the vestiges of that manner of thinking that remain among us and that remain throughout the world (Putin and Russia is the perfect example of what I mean here, but so is much of the US).

The problems with the fandom model of patriotism should be obvious, but I will spell some of them out anyway. A fan roots for but does not participate in the endeavors of a team. A fan feels she’s represented in some manner by the team but she’s not actually a part of that team. My brother invariably claims, “We won”, whenever the Redskins are victorious. I invariably ask him what he managed to do to make that victory possible. He says he “believes”; I say “ugh”.

A fan is caught up in the trappings of the team: the team insignia, the mascot, the “fight songs” (more appropriate to college football, even I know that, but still). Fan-oriented patriotism finds itself obsessed with similar trappings: the flag, the Statue of Liberty, the national anthem. But these are symbols and nothing more. They are not substitutes for one’s actual participation in the social compact.

Even when someone burns an American flag (and Kaepernick is far from doing that), she doesn’t thereby desecrate the country and spit in the faces of the veterans who died for it. No one dies for a country; one dies for the people they cherish, and with whom they live and work and find joy. We are in danger of showing more respect to the symbols meant to celebrate the people with whom we live than we show to those actual people.

The issue, as is so often the case, is a relatively banal one: laziness. It’s far simpler to claim that we venerate the country by holding its symbols sacrosanct than it is to honor the people of the country by showing them the same reverence, respect, and forbearance. It’s far easier to say we do honor to our country and the veterans that have sacrificed for it by passively standing while an anthem (the music of which is based, by the way, on a bawdy drinking song) is performed than to take action to ensure that the rights promised to all are actually enjoyed by all.

The problem with a fandom approach to patriotism or, better yet, simply to citizenship, is that it’s not involved enough while it pretends to be (think of my brother’s refrain of “we won”). We ought not to be fans of our country; we ought to be participants. We can no longer afford to stand by the sidelines; we must be in the thick of it. Being in the thick of it means standing up or sitting down or taking a knee for the things in which you believe. Protest is not disloyalty. Protest is the insistence on hope, the insistence on the notion that we can do better.