Say what you will about Colin Kaepernick’s sit-down protest — and perhaps too much has already been said — but “brave” is one word that comes to mind. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s refusal to stand for the national anthem before a game last week may be the last and only sure way to draw across-thespectrum condemnation in America.
I speak from experience. Like Kaepernick, I once sat down in protest during the anthem at an NFL exhibition game. I paid for it with my job.
It was the summer of 1980, and I was 21, a year out of college, working as a sportswriter on a small (and now defunct) newspaper in the San Diego area. I was, I concede, a naive young adult, filled, like many young people, with lots of unearned opinions about how the world should work.
One of my opinions was that Americans (or at least the Americans who attended sporting events) should show more respect for the anthem. At the dozens and dozens of games I covered, I noticed various degrees of indifference and inattention, and sometimes outright disrespect, while it played. I also thought this was in some ways self-inflicted; playing the anthem before every trivial game had bred this indifference and disrespect.
So I began to stand up for the national anthem by sitting down for it. Whenever it played, I kept my seat. If someone protested my protest, I’d engage them in a discussion about respect and patriotism (as I said, I was naive — and extremely presumptuous). Not many people objected. Most people seemed confused by what I was doing.
My Waterloo came that August when my newspaper assigned me to cover an exhibition game between the San Diego Chargers and the Minnesota Vikings in Bloomington, Minn. As usual, I took my seat in the press box and did my little protest thing as the anthem played. No one said a word.
The day after I returned to work, my editor, looking somewhat stricken, told me the publisher wanted to see me. Now.
The publisher had one question: Why didn’t you stand up for the anthem? I was startled that he even knew — who had told him? — but I proceeded to give him my rap about it. He quickly cut me off.
I had walked into his office as one of the newspaper’s promising young reporters. I walked out about 45 seconds later as one of the newspaper’s newly unemployed reporters.
Several of my former colleagues later told me the team’s management had complained about me. Perhaps my newspaper could have stood up for me — freedom of speech and all that — but I knew that wasn’t going to happen. There were some mitigating circumstances that I believe made my firing inevitable.
You see, the paper had a quiet and unethical arrangement with the Chargers, in which the team gave my small newspaper (and several others in the area) a free seat on its chartered plane and a free room at the team hotel for its away games. The Chargers never tried to dictate our coverage (at least as far as I know), but the quid pro quo was that there would be coverage. The Chargers, a legacy franchise from the old AFL, were still clearly insecure enough to think they’d fade from the headlines if they didn’t effectively underwrite the newspapers’ reporting on them.
And so, the way I saw it, perhaps the team’s complaint about me carried some additional heft with my bosses.
In my case, I wasn’t just fired. I was also shunned. Living in a region chockablock with current and former military, I had become a pariah. None of the top managers and editors at the paper ever spoke to me again.
I wouldn’t suggest that my protest measures up to Kaepernick’s. My “cause,” such as it was, was abstract and perhaps even abstruse. His is huge and important: the brutalization of American citizens by the very people who are supposed to protect them.
But I do understand the kind of fire Kaepernick is playing with. Americans disagree about almost everything, but the flag and the anthem are usually not among them. There’s something inviolate about them; they speak to our noblest ideals, no matter how often we fall short of them.
Which makes me believe that it takes deep conviction — and, yes, courage — for a public figure like Kaepernick to protest in this way.
Like me, Kaepernick may end up losing his job, or facing years of scorn, as Tommie Smith and John Carlos did after their black-glove protest during the 1968 Olympics. And that would be a shame, as well as perverse. In the end, one of the ideals the flag and the anthem represent is the freedom that has allowed Colin Kaepernick to be so disrespectful.