The major irony of Colin Kaepernick's protest is that it actually failed to accomplish what he hoped. Instead of inspiring a conversation about police brutality, it opened the floodgates for people to bicker about free-speech rights, his disrespect of the military and whether a floundering NFL quarterback even should be speaking out at all. This basically was a good idea followed by questionable tactics. It also should be a critical lesson for Kaepernick moving forward, along with other prominent athletes who want to publicly address social issues.
For the record, Kaepernick had every right to sit on the bench as the national anthem was played prior to the San Francisco 49ers' 21-10 preseason loss to Green Bay last Friday. He's been infuriated by the recent slayings of black people by police officers around the country, and he didn't want to honor a flag that, in his mind, represented a nation where people of color are so oppressed. Kaepernick essentially was speaking for those who don't have a voice. He was making his own power move of sorts, turning his job with the 49ers into a one-man revolution.
As Kaepernick stated to reporters on Sunday, "I'll continue to sit. I'm going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there's significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it's supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it's supposed to, I'll stand."
The problem with this approach is that Kaepernick is fighting a long-lingering issue with old-school methods. If this were 1963, then there might be more traction to his efforts. The truth is that protests don't have the same impact when it comes to addressing issues of race and, more specifically, police brutality. He needs to be smarter, more strategic, more aware of the audience he's trying to reach and the opponent he's trying to slay.
To be blunt, Kaepernick isn't going to change this problem by sitting on a bench. All that does is give critics a chance to blast him on Twitter or simply tune him out altogether. The reality is that he'll be a story for a week, and then we'll all move on to the next hot topic. That's how we do it these days -- we stay interested in a sexy bit of news only until the next item comes along to captivate us.
If Kaepernick really wants to attack the problem of police brutality, he'll have to be more nuanced in his approach. The way to resolve this issue is through tactics that aren't nearly as provocative as what he did this past weekend. It's going to take education, compassion and -- for both police officers and black people -- forgiveness. It will require cops and citizens coming together and making the first step to simply talk to one another, as was the case when a recent planned protest march in Wichita, Kansas, morphed into a barbecue consisting of the local police and the community sharing their pain.
That is what progress should look like when it comes to this matter. Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins also provided his own example when he told reporters about a small group of players who recently met with Philadelphia police commissioner Richard Ross Jr. The point of the conversation was to discuss ways that players could help improve relations between local citizens and the police. Jenkins referred to it as "talking to the people who can make some change."
When asked about Kaepernick's stance, Jenkins said, "If you want change and you want things to get better across the country, there's different ways to go about it. What's going to get lost is all the stuff that he was trying to point out. I think everybody is going to talk about how him making the money that he does as an NFL player and basically kind of shaming the flag or whatever, shaming the country, is unpatriotic. You talk about troops and being able to honor that, that's what's going to get talked about. It's not going to be about the lives that have been lost across the country, the injustices that are being done to minorities all across this country -- that's what's not going to be in the headlines. It's going to be about him."
The important point Jenkins made is that there are other ways to effect change than just those that have been used in the past. The civil rights movement succeeded not only because of protests but because of intensely consistent calculation. Activists like Martin Luther King Jr. knew exactly how they wanted to use the media to their advantage and where to locate their marches so TV viewers could see the atrocities playing out in the South. They also were battling against specific laws that legalized racism in various forms, which made their fight far more focused than this one.
The underrated aspect of what Kaepernick is hoping to change today is that the opponent is far more nebulous. The pain of police violence is intensely traumatic, but it's also a more complicated problem to remedy. The way Kaepernick spoke, you'd think there's a unified, omnipresent police force patrolling the entire country and picking off blacks whenever possible. The fact is that successfully addressing police brutality actually will involve a painstaking process of dissecting every case in every community where it happens.
This is why the most interesting aspect of Kaepernick's conversation involved the ideas he's brainstormed apart from attacking the anthem. While it's vital to have the uncomfortable conversations he seeks, it's just as necessary to know what those conversations should involve. "There are things I have in the works right now that I'm working on to put together in the future and have come to fruition soon," Kaepernick said. "Those are things that I'll talk about as we get closer to those days."
It would be wrong to underestimate Kaepernick's willingness to keep pursuing this issue. Regardless of how long he stays in San Francisco -- and there is a real possibility that he might have just taken a machete to what's left of his imploding career in that town -- he's already waded into the deep end of this conversation. One team source said Kaepernick spends plenty of time talking to Dr. Harry Edwards, the noted Cal-Berkeley sociology professor who works for the 49ers and also was a prominent civil rights advocate in the 1960s. There's no doubt Kaepernick had been doing his homework in preparation for something that goes far beyond this past weekend's actions.
The hope here is that he's also studied other aspects of history. As much as we love the sacrifices the late Muhammad Ali made during his career, it's easy to ignore the fact that that he was guided by his Muslim faith and heavily influenced by Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. The same holds true for John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the sprinters who raised gloved fists on the medal stand during the 1968 Olympics. They were part of the movement led by Edwards, who made his name by organizing athletes of his generation to stand up for social change.
The critical lesson that today's athletes must learn is that it's far more challenging to make those moves without a director in your ear and an army of supporters behind you. Even with Edwards in his corner, Kaepernick has walked onto this stage all by himself. He continually has said that he's ready to face all the backlash that comes with that. What's equally important is that he's willing to adapt to the times in which he's making such a courageous stand.