Colin Kaepernick sent a tweet on Thanksgiving and the white-wing media wants to make sure you know about it. Breitbart, the Washington Times, Fox News and the rest of the usual suspects quickly reported the contents of this provocative tweet: “Spent the morning at the Indigenous People’s Sunrise Ceremony on the 50 year anniversary of the Occupation of Alcatraz. The US government has stolen over 1.5 billion acres of land from Indigenous people. Thank you to my Indigenous family, I’m with you today and always.”
Just in case that benign announcement didn’t raise the Defcon 1: Apocalypse Looming alarm in your head, Fox started the “news” story by editorializing the contents: “Former NFL player Colin Kaepernick had an odd way of celebrating Thanksgiving, attending an event that appeared to serve as a rebuke to the holiday and the United States.” News reports aren’t supposed to tell us it’s an “odd way” unless they already want to bias the reader. Say it ain’t so, Fox! The conservative political site the Blaze’s headline also wanted to make sure the readers don’t have to burden themselves with thinking: “Colin Kaepernick bashes America on Thanksgiving, participates in ‘Unthanksgiving Day’ celebration.”
Technically, pointing out a fact isn’t “bashing.” America’s forefathers did indeed steal the land from the indigenous people, often over their dead bodies. Just as indigenous people stole land from other tribes. That’s just historical fact. Like pointing out to grandpa that his zipper is open. I’m not bashing him, just stating a truth. So, why the panicky attacks on Kaepernick? Clearly, there’s something much more insidious going on here: the sustained attempt to steal Kaepernick’s political voice by characterizing him as un-American. The Black Grinch who wants to steal White Christmas American values.
It always starts with character assassination. In 1964, after an intense campaign to label him as a communist, an audio tape was sent to Dr Martin Luther King Jr purportedly of an extra-marital sexual encounter. With the tape was a letter calling him an “abnormal moral imbecile” and encouraging him to commit suicide before “your filthy, abnormal, fraudulent self is bared to the nation.” The tape and letter were sent by the FBI. Calling King a communist was how the FBI justified its relentless campaign of bugging King, his family, and friends and aggressive harassment against him. The campaign was effective because in 1966, 75% of Americans did not support King. The irony is that the moral values that determined King’s crusade were rooted in his devotion to Christianity, not communism. Yet, it was mostly Christians who rejected their own supposed beliefs because they were espoused by a black man who literally embodied Jesus’s teaching of turn-the-other-cheek. History has taught us over and over that religious values are quickly abandoned when they conflict with economics or traditional social norms.
This attempt to drown out Kaepernick’s voice by shouting unfounded personal insults has been going on since he first took a knee during the national anthem in 2016. But really it’s how conservative America has always treated African American athletes who speak out, whether it’s Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, or any of the others. It’s the equivalent of sticking fingers in their ears while shouting, “Nyah, nyah, nyah, I can’t hear you.”
Kaepernick’s highly publicized tryout last month did not seem designed to seriously consider him for readmittance into the NFL. Instead, it looked like a media-savvy sham-show to make the NFL look like the good guys while destroying Kaepernick’s credibility as an athlete and therefore as a spokesman for anything, be it social justice or Nike. When the NFL refused to allow the media to attend and insisted on sole control over the video of the tryout, Kaepernick balked and moved the location so that the media could attend and no one could control how the world witnessed his football skills. The NFL also wanted him to sign a contract apparently agreeing not to sue the league if he wasn’t signed. There was no point to this unusual set-up except to promote a progressive image for the NFL: “See, we’re no longer trying to silence an outspoken athlete. We’ve evolved. We’re woke, baby!” Not really.
Neither the focus on his tweet nor the NFL pretense of his tryout are really about Colin Kaepernick, the man or the player. They are about all the other athletes who conservatives are trying to preemptively silence. NBA superstars like LeBron James and Steph Curry are impervious to this kind of treatment, in part because the NBA didn’t campaign to blackball them. Fox News, Breitbart, and the other mouthpieces of entitlement and walling-off-the-truth can’t touch them. But other players, especially young ones working their way up through the ranks, may be stifled by the example of Kaepernick left to twist in the wind of no-change.
Efforts to silence the black community and all others who speak out for rights has only gotten worse under the Trump administration. Political and social disagreement and discourse, which are the foundations of our country, have been punished. Aggressive efforts have been made to keep African Americans and college students from voting. Lifelong patriots in our government and military were attacked and belittled during impeachment inquiries. And those who have questioned why so many unarmed black people have been killed by the police have now been told by Attorney General William Barr, “[Americans] have to start showing, more than they do, the respect and support that law enforcement deserves,” adding that “if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.” This is the clearest most direct threat yet: “Shut up or die.”
Fifty years ago, 14 black football players from the University of Wyoming were kicked off the team because they asked their coach if they could wear a black armband in solidarity with the campus group, the Black Student Alliance. The armbands were to protest Brigham Young University, which Wyoming was scheduled to play, because of the Mormon Church’s refusal to allow black parishioners to become clergy, which every white member was entitled to. (This rule was abolished in 1978.) The team recalled that the previous year, when playing at BYU, their opponents spat at them, used racial slurs, and took cheap shots at their knees on the field. The Wyoming coach had ignored his players’ complaints. So, when they walked into the coach’s office to explain what they wanted to do, the coach interrupted them with, “As of this moment, you are no longer members of the Wyoming football team.” The players said he followed it with a racist rant that included telling them to return to their fatherless inner-city homes and live off welfare. The only thing the coach admitted to saying to these athletes was “Shut up!”
For much longer than 50 years people have been ordering truth-tellers to shut up and punishing them when they refuse. I’m sure their tactics have silenced some athletes. Not all. They can never silence all because the kind of grit it takes to become an athlete is the same kind it takes to place truth above self-interest. But they sure will keep on trying as long as they get paid to pander to those who wrap themselves in the pretty colors of the flag rather than the bold words of the Constitution.