The sports world is used to debating things, just nothing of substance. Though it was Jamie Horowitz who made "embrace debate" part of the national sports culture at ESPN and is now doing the same to attempt to resuscitate FOX Sports, the debate facet of sports is as old as competition itself.
Any two people standing outside of the Ancient Olympic games or a chariot race at the coliseum likely had conversations in the same exact spirit of those around the proverbial water cooler or on social media.
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No two people see a sporting event in quite the same way and the very nature of being a fan(atic) means that watching a sporting event is sure to create and stir up a wide range of very powerful emotions. Put a few people in a room with those powerful emotions and sparks are sure to fly -- -just as they do at the First Take desk in Bristol.
Now, when has any of that mattered?
At the intersection of sports (which is, remember, a game meant to be enjoyed) and the real world, numerous actual issues take shape of actual significance. Labor issues in sports may seem silly to some when it's "millionaires vs. billionaires," but that ignores the vast history of athletes needing to fight for things like clean socks and healthcare. Many couldn't possibly care less about the plight of college athletes, but that obscures a multi-billion dollar business that sometimes has trouble even letting athletes know when they're injured beyond repair. Issues of race, sexual identity and sexism might seem trivial, but only if one forgets (or doesn't care about) the millions upon millions suffering in silence alongside their more famous peers who happen to be good at sports.
This brings us to Colin Kaepernick.
From the moment the San Francisco 49ers quarterback decided to stay seated during the National Anthem, virtual boo birds were on him just as ferociously as Olympians who didn't raise their hands over their hearts or political candidates who chose not to wear flag pins on their lapels -- -- You know, the true evils of the world.
When Kaepernick explained why he didn't stand, all hell broke loose:
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
If not standing for the National Anthem (or even standing and not raising a hand to your heart) enflames people, one can only imagine what happened when that fire was combined with the powderkeg that is racial tensions in this country circa 2016. Whether or not you believe Kaepernick has a point or whether your preferred hashtag is #BlackLivesMatter or #AllLivesMatter/#BlueLivesMatter, it's not exactly difficult to admit we have a bit of a touchy subject on our hands that most would probably rather not talk about.
That's Kaepernick's real "sin" here to all those who are so incredibly mad at him. He took a front-page issue that people quickly try to thumb past and put it on the sports page where they don't expect issues that are supposed to make them think. Americans want their athletes seen doing remarkable things, not heard having remarkable opinions. When an athlete opens his or her mouth, it should be to thank Jesus, America, apple pie and the fans and then shut up and get back to work.
America was fine debating whether or not Kaepernick should start for the 49ers or his relative merits for their fantasy team. They're pissed that he's attempting to make them debate whether or not all lives actually matter to them or if that's just a pithy response used synonymously with "No, black lives really don't matter to me all that much, now be quiet."
The red herring here is that somehow Kaepernick not standing for the anthem in anyway denigrates anyone whatsoever.
You and I personally might think it's disrespectful, but that's our opinion in 2016. Up until the flag code was created in the early 1900s and made into (never enforced) law in the 1940s, there wasn't one accepted way to pay respect to the country and its flag, and generations of Americans sat for things like the playing of the Star Spangled Banner and didn't raise a ruckus on Twitter by doing so.
More specifically, people tend to think that Kaepernick not standing for the National Anthem disrespects our military and veterans. Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan said specifically that, as have many commentators and internet memes comparing the "spoiled" Kaepernick with injured veterans who stood for the anthem despite their injuries.
The problem is: Kaepernick very specifically said that wasn't, in any way, his intent:
"I have great respect for our men and women that fought for this country.
I have family, I have friends that have fought for this country. And they fight for freedom. They fight for liberty and justice, for everyone, and that's not happening. I mean, people are dying in vain because this country is not holding its end of the bargain up as far as giving freedom and justice and liberty to everybody."
Saying Kaepernick has to stand for the anthem to properly respect the military might be your opinion. Heck, it might even be my opinion, but whether or not the military in our country feels properly respected by the quarterback of the 49ers seems like a pretty insignificant footnote to all of the issues Kaepernick's protest attempted to draw attention to -- -- namely, racial injustice and disparity.
This is where the crux of the matter is: It's not in standing or not standing. It's not about the flag, the military or any one of your relatives or friends who helped defend this country. It's in the fact that Kaepernick is saying things lots of people either disagree vehemently with or simply don't want to hear.
The inconvenient truth is that while Kaepernick may have an opinion that you disagree with, but he's not wrong on at least some of the facts. The San Francisco police union president blasted Kaepernick and said he had a "woeful lack of knowledge," but he conveniently ignored any rebuttal to Kaepernick's point that cosmetologists have a lower minimum time training than police officers -- -- a statement that is 100 percent correct in the state of California.
Did you know that?
I didn't know that.
You see: Somewhere in this craziness where people (who aren't Colin Kaepernick) are debating about whether or not Colin Kaepernick hates the military, police officers or just all white people, there is an actual silver lining.
Beyond the near-constant social media din of people calling Kaepernick alternately "too white" to have an opinion on race and a n***** for having an opinion on race, there's actual value in what's going on.
Kaepernick is standing up for what he believes in -- -- something most of those men and women who gave their lives in battle would champion. Moreover, Kaepernick is standing on the shoulders of some pretty impressive people as well who put their lives on the line in a different way. Jackie Robinson also famously refused to stand for or sing the national anthem. Like Kaepernick, Tommie Smith and John Carlos used the 1968 Olympics to raise a Black Power Salute to protest many of the same things Kaepernick spoke about this past week.
None of this is to say that everyone should get in line behind Kaepernick and agree with him without any disagreement on any point. In fact, that's the opposite of what we should do. Without wanting to speak for the quarterback, I don't think that's what Kaepernick would want either.
Talking about it, disagreeing about it, having the conversation about it…that's the point!
Otherwise, we're left with the sterilized form of patriotism that the sports world tries to shove down our throats week in and week out. Patriotism shouldn't be measured about the size of the on-field flag or the impressiveness of the pregame flyover. Our patriotism shouldn't be so homogenized and done by rote that the NFL managed to profit off of it under the auspices of "doing it for the troops."
Our patriotism, both inside the sports world and out of it, should have some bumps in the road to it. We should disagree on things because that's what democracy is all about. We shouldn't be comfortable with being told what to do, say or think nor should we be comfortable with telling others the same.
We should embrace the debate that Colin Kaepernick has started, and we should demand more of our athletes start more of them -- -- whether we agree with them or not. Then, we maybe we could start to care nearly as much about some of the things that actually matter in this country rather than measuring our supposed patriotism against one another.
Embrace the debate, because without it, this country is worse off.
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