After a summer rife with racial tensions across the country, it should come as no surprise that controversy regarding black entertainers, particularly athletes, speaking out against legitimate issues in United States have received a barrage of criticism from a mostly white crowd consisting of fans, fellow players and teammates, and even team executives. Much of this controversy recently came to a head when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to sit (and later kneel) during the National Anthem at a preseason football game in solidarity with the messages of the Black Lives Matter movement. The backlash Kaepernick received is not out of the ordinary. In fact, his protest is very much in line with the history of Black athletes facing criticism for their actions and in turn, having to justify not only their protest, but also their existence.
In his 1972 autobiography, Jackie Robinson reflected upon the meaning of the National Anthem to him as a black man in America, “the black grandson of a slave, the son of a black sharecropper.” The Anthem, in Robinson’s eyes, would have been more appropriate as he theme song to his entrance into white baseball, or what he calls Branch Rickey’s (the general manager of the Dodgers when Robinson signed) “Noble Experiment,” in the sense that it symbolized the backlash he received as the first black player in the MLB. It is not to say that Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in baseball was all for naught. Contrarily, integration in the MLB was inevitable in an evolving society. Unfortunately for Robinson, his entrance came with the cost of racist comments from opponents, teammates, and fans, as well as death threats. When we look at a black athlete who speaks out against injustice like Colin Kaepernick and describe him as ungrateful for the opportunities with which he has been presented and cite athletes like Robinson who paved the way for his place in sport, we do a great disservice to Robinson’s legacy as a black man who understood the evils of racism and that he “never had it made” in this country because of his race.
The notion of peaceful protests executed by black entertainers as generating a peaceful response is anything but accurate. At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in a display of solidarity and pride, what Smith called a “human rights salute.” Smith and Carlos would later face an onslaught of criticism and abuse from the sporting world for making too political of a statement at the Olympics. Nearly half a century later, black entertainers are still facing the same criticism, from sports fans in particular, for peaceful protests because (God forbid) black people with a platform draw attention to legitimate concerns about police brutality, gun violence, and the systemic oppression of black and brown bodies.
This past year’s highly anticipated Super Bowl Halftime Show featured perfomances by Coldplay, Bruno Mars, and goddess-amongst-humankind Beyoncé, who made everyone mad when she and her dancers performed the rightful national anthem the hit track “Formation” in wardrobe reminiscent of Black Panther Party militants.In response, several police unions decided that the best way to show people that they stand to protect and serve everyone regardless of color, creed, or gender was to discuss whether or not they should protect and serve at Beyoncé’s tour dates set to begin that spring. Beyoncé’s homage to the Black Lives Matter movement sparked a firestorm of controversy (because “you know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation”) that led to a Boycott Beyoncé movement beyond police unions, which Beyoncé has fully embraced. Naturally, Queen Bey could not be stopped, and her Formation World Tour has sold out every show to date.
While Beyoncé’s subtle protest garnered accusations of her “anti-police” sentiment, Colin Kaepernick’s choice to sit out the National Anthem was more nuanced in the sense that questions regarding his politics, his race, his salary, his own patriotism or perceived lack thereof, and his ability to play football arose in attempts to discredit his First Amendment rights. Kaepernick’s protest has been described as divisive, and as something New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees “wholeheartedly” disagrees with because of what the flag stands for (apparently it’s liberty and justice for all, but I’m still not sold on that one).
In the tumultuous backlash, Kaepernick’s message unfortunately gets lost. He has had to go on record to express his love for this country and utmost respect he has for men and women in the military because of baseless accusations that his choice to sit was anti-American. Furthermore, he has also worked with veteran and former football player Nate Boyer to perfect his protest to be more respectful, opting to kneel during the Anthem, as opposed to sitting. Kaepernick also pledged the first $1 million of his salary to disadvantaged communities and organizations that work to create a more equitable America for people of color. Regardless of his explanation, the Santa Clara Police Department (taking a page from the Boycott Beyoncé folk) believe the best way to respond to Kaepernick’s concern about police brutality in communities of color would be to threaten to stop serving at San Francisco 49ers football games, which would only prove Kaepernick’s point.
The Kaepernick Saga is just one chapter in the chronicles of Black Americans being “too black” for trying to justify their existence by taking a stand, while at the same time being “anti-American” and “unpatriotic.” Black bodies, especially in sports, are treated as profit-generating machines, and the second an athlete breaks that mold, all hell breaks loose, which angers team executives (scary!). Fans tend to feel the same way, which explains the zealous disdain Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas who stood at attention during the National Anthem without her hand over her heart, which, you know, is gravely unpatriotic and worthy of sharp criticism. Black athletes and entertainers are entitled to a platform under the First Amendment, and the mentality that they are only here for our enjoyment and the executives’ profit is absurd and insulting. The Flag and the Anthem are mere symbols of this country. Jumping to the defense of objects over actual people (black entertainers are people, too!) is tasteless and puts one on the wrong side of history.