The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sorry for the inconvenience fans, but black athlete activism is multiplying

Oakland running back Marshawn Lynch sits during the national anthem prior to the team's game against Arizona on Aug. 12. (Rick Scuteri/Associated Press)

In the year since Colin Kaepernick first protested during the national anthem, we’ve witnessed ample and unnerving anecdotal evidence that the injustices the quarterback decried have only grown worse in this country. It was tangible before white supremacist groups instigated a horrifying display of hatred and blood spill last weekend in Charlottesville, but in the aftermath of that incident, it should be clear: No amount of denial, presidential truth manipulation or optimism can assuage the festering racism, intolerance and all-around misunderstanding in America.

Kaepernick has been condemned to unofficial NFL exile for his willingness to do something. That was the league owners’ dastardly ploy to scare players back into order. It would have worked if the players were as self-centered and morally indecent as their bosses, but they can’t ignore the happenings in this vast world they entertain.

So the activists in the NFL, and all of sports, are multiplying. Seattle defensive end Michael Bennett and Oakland running back Marshawn Lynch sat during the anthem before recent preseason games. Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins and Los Angeles Rams defensive end Robert Quinn raised their fists. NBA superstar LeBron James, perhaps the most influential active American sports icon, spread a message of love during a charity event and called out President Trump for his poor response to the Charlottesville tragedy. There are other sports figures making pleas for change, just like so many concerned citizens. And in the months to come, you should expect many more to speak out.

While Kaepernick wasn’t even the first in this wave of athlete activists to take a stand, his methods were the strongest and boldest, and it has made him the enduring symbol of this movement. He has sacrificed the most; his NFL career may be over at 29. But if America is still America — beautiful despite some ugly features, slow to evolve but persistent, a compassionate democracy — history will judge Kaepernick ultimately not as a rogue and defiant objector, but a man ahead of this time who helped spur an important athlete revolution.

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Sorry for the inconvenience, sports fans, but the days of the docile black athlete are over. This isn’t a time to stick to sports. This isn’t a time to be afraid because Kaepernick has been blackballed.

It is understood that fans turn to sports as a diversion, but sports are also a microcosm of life. You can’t celebrate the many moments in which athletics have united people, or led to societal change, and then whine about the few moments they make you feel uncomfortable.

The national anthem is about two minutes long, depending on the ambition of the artist performing it. And then there’s a three-hour football game without much conversation of which players stood and which took a knee. After the game, the protesting players may talk for a minute or two about their stance. If you think that’s too much of a distraction from sports — the ultimate distraction — you’re living an awfully petty life. I’m sorry you didn’t get to put extra sprinkles on your ice cream, but there are more important matters.

At some point, the conversation must advance past the audacity of athletes kneeling during the anthem. It must advance past breathless claims that these players aren’t patriotic. It must advance to a more thorough consideration of why they’re using their popularity and platforms to make such a fuss. Most of these players aren’t just about the shock value of a protest. They’re in their communities trying to figure out solutions to complicated issues such as police brutality, systematic racism and the rising level of tolerance for violent extremism. We must stop simply calling roll on anthem protesters and start listening to their message.

“We’re sitting here having a conversation about whether it’s important that a guy stands or sits, when the topic is inequality or justice,” said Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin, who is outspoken and active in the community. “I look in the stands at some of our games, both home and away, and I see people who are drunk with their hats still on, yelling. How come you guys aren’t talking to them? How come there’s not a discussion about that?

“[Michael Bennett] is taking a reasonable and peaceful approach to something that is important to our society and the health and wellness of our communities.”

Baldwin’s point is interesting, though not fully developed. If standing for the anthem is a sacred tradition and not a trite habit that the pack follows mindlessly, then more fans need to treat it as such before games. They can’t wait for a terrorist attack to rediscover the importance of it. And they can’t wait until an athlete sits down to be outraged by the lack of respect, not when fools scream incoherent things and chant about their team during it.

The biggest problem isn’t just that racists feel empowered again. It’s the willful hibernation of the average, tolerant person. The kind is usually white, believes we’re in a post-racial society and would rather not have meaningful conversations to perform maintenance on complicated American relationships, particularly the white-black dynamic. Fifty-four years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. criticized that type of person in a famous letter.

“First, I must confess that over the last few years, I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” King wrote. “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’”

The circumstances have changed, but King’s point is still relevant. Let’s expand it and not just attack white people; plenty of folks are asleep right now. That’s why the athlete’s voice is so powerful and necessary. They get attention. They make people care. Like their stances or not, they will make you react.

The flag is a celebrated American symbol. Standing for the anthem is a longtime tradition. But here’s another national tradition: fighting for what’s right, preferably in a peaceful manner.

If you want LeBron to shut up and dunk, I have news for you. Enjoy the dunk. But brace for the conversation.

In the year since Kaepernick started his protest, the problems have intensified. For sports stars and others with voices, there is a moral obligation to react appropriately.

Read more:

If Colin Kaepernick played basketball, the NBA would embrace him

Jenkins: Athlete dissent is a form of patriotism, too

Blackistone: The NFL has blackballed Kaepernick