When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the singing of the national anthem during a preseason football game, he was the catalyst for a still-unfolding series of protests and counter-protests. Both players from around the league and fans have expressed support and outrage for Kaepernick’s actions.
Interestingly, the majority of the controversy has not been focused on Kaepernick’s belief that America is a nation that is socially unjust for black citizens, but instead has become a fairly substantive debate over the limits of free speech.
While it is easy to romanticize an abstract notion of total freedom to expression, the practicality of this civil liberty, as fundamental to American culture today as when the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791, is far more complex. The First Amendment forbids Congress from abridging speech; it makes no such stipulations for private corporations, which is precisely what the NFL is. Further, though the outrage that follows public figures’ actions is often criticized as being contra to the notion of free expression and even an attack on the sovereign rights an individual possesses, there is nothing in the Constitution which mandates society must listen to and seriously deliberate speech.
Rather than spark a debate about social justice in America, Kaepernick’s actions were the overtures to a civics lesson being conducted through sports and social media. The issue is, effectively, a referendum on where the line between one individual’s exercise of rights begins and the reciprocal right of another begins.
It is therefore interesting that the opening weekend of the 2016 NFL season fell on the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, forcing players who wanted to kneel in solidarity with Kaepernick to take an action which could very easily be interpreted as anti-American on a day when national pride and solidarity is particularly meaningful.
Though there was discussion of a team-wide kneeling by the Seattle Seahawks, the players ultimately linked arms as a show of respect for the flag and the military members present at the game.
Several of their opponents, the Miami Dolphins, did kneel. And they made a point, just not the one they were intending.
Their decision to protest on the anniversary of 9/11 says less about issues of civil rights and more about the nature of America as a country and as a polity. While other nations stifle dissent and abrogate rights in the aftermath of crisis, America does not. While pomp and symbolism replaces substance in other nations, propping up a central narrative which is not allowed to be questioned, America embraces dissent and discussion.
The actions of the players, and the ability for supporters and detractors alike to discussion the issue of their own volition on largely unregulated social platforms speaks volumes, not about the injustice of America, but the incredible latitude for individual discretion that exists in the country, not just as some abstract notion, but substantively.