From Kaepernick to now, anthem protests remain complex and controversial
NEW ORLEANS — Colin Kaepernick does not have an NFL job.
The President of the United States says the league’s players who follow Kaepernick’s lead and kneel in protest when the national anthem is played prior to their team’s games are S.O.B.’s who deserve to lose their jobs.
In recent days, weeks and months the most divisive issues we face as a country have intersected with the games we watch as a diversion from such issues. It all came to a head over the weekend when the president made his firing suggestion to NFL owners while he spoke at a political rally in Alabama, then tweeted criticism of the anthem protesters.
That brought official statements and tweets of response from players, owners and commissioners.
Then on Sunday the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans organization as well as 14 individual Saints players and their head coach joined the fray along with others throughout the NFL.
There’s nothing more American than groups of Americans arguing with one another about which of them is more American.
But the Saints and Pelicans organization took a refreshing approach, issuing a statement simultaneously criticizing the President’s unsolicited comments, urging respect for the playing of the anthem and still supporting their players’ right to protest.
It was a thoughtful, nuanced stance on an issue that primarily has attracted overly passionate and superficial stances.
Just a few minutes after the statement was released, 10 Saints players sat while the national anthem was performed prior to the team’s game against Carolina in Charlotte, N.C. Four other players stood with hands placed on sitting teammates’ shoulders.
The statement called the president’s comments “disappointing and inappropriate relative to our players on this issue.”
The statement pointed out that owner Tom Benson served in the military (he was in the Navy) and “continues to this day to support all military branches and feels strongly that we honor those men and women who defend our freedoms and our freedom of speech.”
In a rare acknowledgement that there is merit to both sides of the issue, the statement added that Benson “also believes that the very players that represent the Saints and Pelicans organizations should be allowed to share or express their feelings.”
In other words, you can honor the military and also believe in free speech.
In fact, they should go hand in hand.
Saints coach Sean Payton weighed in on the president’s comments after Sunday’s game.
“I think we need a little bit more wisdom in that office,” Payton said. “I want that guy to be one of the smarter guys in the room, and it seems like every time he’s opening his mouth, it’s something that is dividing our country and not pulling us together.”
Sunday’s protests in response to the president renewed a controversy that began more than a year ago when Kaepernick, then a reserve quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers, started kneeling during the anthem as a way to protest the oppression of minorities, most notably a series of incidents in recent years in which Black citizens have been killed in confrontations with White police officers.
Critics saw Kaepernick’s protest as misdirected, believing it was unfairly disrespectful to soldiers who have fought and continue to fight to protect our freedom.
Supporters saw such criticism as being misdirected, suggesting Kaepernick wasn’t criticizing soldiers but rather was exercising one of the fundamental rights they have established and preserved in order to bring attention to what he sees as an area in which America is failing to live up to its lofty standards.
This president seems eager to inflame the most flammable debates and this one fit the bill even though Kaepernick hasn’t played since New Year’s Day.
The quarterback, expecting to be released in a cost-cutting move, opted out of his contract in March and he has yet to find another opportunity.
Kaepernick supporters are quick to claim that the absence of job offers for a quarterback who’s 29 years old and led his team to a Super Bowl just four years ago in a league severely lacking in top-flight quarterbacks is clear evidence that the White billionaires and multi-millionaires running the league have black-balled him.
But Kaepernick’s unconventional skill set makes him a less-than-ideal candidate for certain schemes and he was beaten out in San Francisco, which is one of the worst teams in the NFL, before he ever took a knee.
So his inability to find work is more complicated than just his football skill or his politics.
But in the current political climate it’s preferable for many to see Kaepernick simply as either a victim or a pariah rather than as a competent, but flawed quarterback whose signing would inevitably bring non-football headaches for his employer.
The Saints and Pelicans statement chose complexity over simplicity, emphasizing unity over division.
“We prefer to take this moment in time and work together, all of us, to stop the divisiveness,” it read. “Our players and our organization serve the New Orleans community selflessly and do so without care of race, creed or sexual orientation and that makes us a better city and a better team.
“We believe strongly in honoring our flag and the national anthem and what it represents and we support our players. We all must strive to show that we are all Americans and continue to work towards equality for all.”
Whether any of this non-football stuff impacted football stuff is unclear, but after starting the season with two lackluster losses, the Saints went out and soundly defeated the previously unbeaten Panthers 34-13.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…