Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Kaepernick's Cause Célèbre

Colin Kaepernick (center) kneels before the San Diego
Chargers game last Thursday September 1st.
From the perspective of a former professional football player, it's been fascinating to watch the varied reactions to San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernik's decision to sit or kneel on the sidelines during the playing of the national anthem before preseason games as a means to protest the disparate treatment of people of color by some police officers in America.

His actions have drawn intense media scrutiny for good reason.

Case in point: the public request of 34 different New York City council officials yesterday, including Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and Public Advocate Letitia James, issued to Mayor Bill de Blasio demanding that the city change it's policy to allow the release of the NYPD disciplinary records of Daniel Pantaleo, the NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner after placing him in an illegal choke hold caught on video over two years ago.

The city has been dragging it's feet on filing charges against Pantaleo for months, and the city council members made their public demands on Tuesday after Mayor de Blasio tried to duck responsibility for putting pressure on the NYPD by insisting that the New York State Legislature must change the laws governing the release of disciplinary data for the NYPD.

So Kaepernick isn't just kneeling for nothing.

I think it goes without saying that the NFL star's now-infamous sideline protest also includes the systematic racial bias entrenched in local, state and federal judicial courts as well, which, as we've learned from Department of Justice analysis of places like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, go hand-in-hand with the biased policing practices particularly common in communities where people of color are the majority.

Actor Michael B. Jordan in Fruitvale Station
Some regard his decision as disrespectful to the flag and the country, like the Santa Clara Police Officers Association (the union that represents the approximately 70 police officers who provide security at 49ers home games) which sent a letter to the team saying officers may boycott working San Francisco home games if the team does not discipline and rebuke Kaepernick for what they regard as anti-police statements.

The SCPOA letter also accused Kaepernick's "anti-police" statements as being "inaccurate and completely unsupported by any facts"-maybe the SCPOA should show Fruitvale Station at their next union movie night.

The critically-acclaimed 2013 film directed by Ryan Coogler depicts the last day of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old African-American who was unarmed and being held face-down by Bay Area Rapid Transport officers on the platform of a subway platform in nearby Oakland, California when a white officer shot him in the back and killed him in front of horrified onlookers who also captured the incident on video.

Many others, including the President, see Kaepernick's actions as the legitimate exercising of his 1st Amendment right to freedom of expression - according to a Washington Post article NFL players and even fans from other teams may begin joining Kaepernick in sitting during the national anthem when the NFL kicks off this weekend.

Personally speaking, those kinds of political or personal expressions weren't really a part of the landscape of the National Football League when I played in 1992 - 1994.

It's not that players didn't feel strongly about such issues, that was the post-Rodney King era after all when excessive and unjustified violence against people of color by police officers was first truly coming into the mainstream global spotlight, and I can tell you from personal experience that more than a few African-American teammates that I played with during my time with the New York Giants experienced instances of being pulled over for "Driving While Black" by local police in different parts of north Jersey for no other reason than being black and driving an expensive vehicle.

Kaepernick in his younger days
In the early 90's the use of and access to social media via hand-held cell phones was not a part of the mainstream as it is today.

So NFL players really didn't have the kind of readily accessible outlet to express beliefs or opinions the way they do today, when almost every college and professional athlete has a Twitter or Instagram account to use as a platform for personal expression.  

I don't know Colin Kaepernick, so I can only speculate that, like many other people around the world, he got fed up with the slew of unjustified shootings of innocent people of color by some members of law enforcement that have dominated the headlines in recent years.

When I see him these days with his beard and large Afro as he now looks in the photo up at the top, my sense is that he's matured and evolved in his sense of self-awareness of his own racial identity.

He's noticeably different than he was as a younger player with his close-cropped hair, and though he's of mixed race ancestry, he's not someone that I pegged as distinctively "African-American" in appearance.

Honestly, I thought he was Hispanic when I first saw him on TV a few years ago.

Now obviously if you'd read this blog, you know I don't mean that in any kind of demeaning way, black Americans come in many different shades; I have relatives in my own family who run the gamut of skin color from Kaepernick as he appears in the photo above, to really really dark-skinned.

Having been raised in the suburbs of Bethesda, Maryland and West Windsor, New Jersey, I  know what it's like to be "the only black guy in the class", so my guess is Kaepernick has had to deal with his own kinds of issues with peers, some family members and strangers in terms of his race.

He was adopted by a very loving white family in 1987 after his birth mother made the difficult decision to give him up for adoption; in fact he refuses any contact with her even though she's tried to connect with him - check out noted sports writer Rick Reilly's article on Kaepernick's complex upbringing for more insight.

The NFL is a tightly-run ship in terms of conduct and behavior on and off the field, so I have to admire Kaepernick's defiance of those happy to cheer him when he's throwing touchdown passes, who do a 180 and view him with contempt or anger when he expresses an opinion that doesn't jibe with their own.

Lest we forget, he's using his position in the spotlight to bring needed attention to one the paramount  issues of justice and human rights facing this country; the systematic disparate treatment of people of color by some police officers, which can and has led to the loss of innocent lives.

If there's a better way for an athlete to make use of his fame, I'm not sure what it is.

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