Colin who? For those who are not fans of American football, the name of Colin Kaepernick was, until recently, entirely unknown.
That changed on August 26, when the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers refused to stand up for the National Anthem at a pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers.
His explanation: the U.S. oppresses black people. Kaepernick, whose biological father was black and biological mother white, was raised in Wisconsin by adoptive white parents who took him into their family after losing two children to heart defects.
Pretty much everybody in the football world had an opinion about Kaepernick’s action. So did countless politicians and commentators. Most acknowledged the obvious fact that Kaepernick has a right to his opinion and a right to decide not to stand up for the National Anthem. Views differed, however, on whether his opinion was correct.
Some compared him favorably with Muhammed Ali, who was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. Writing in The Guardian, Les Carpenter described Kaepernick as “a rare, strong football voice on social issues.” Others echoed these judgments.
Then there were those like Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who served in the Army in Afghanistan, and who in response to Kaepernick’s action told ESPN that the U.S. is the best country in the world. “I just know that I am very thankful to be an American. I will stand very proudly, and I will sing every single line in the national anthem every single time I hear it,” he said. “I will stop whatever I am doing, because I recognize that I have to be very thankful to be in this country.” Kaepernick’s birth mother spoke up against him, too, tweeting that “there’s ways to make change w/o disrespecting & bringing shame to the very country & family who afforded you so many blessings.”
Critics were also quick to point out that the country whose anthem Kaepernick refuses to honor has made him rich. Photographs of his 4600-square-foot San Jose mansion, which he bought in 2014 for $2.7 million, appeared all over the media. Accusations of hypocrisy and ingratitude swirled. And anger mounted among gridiron junkies. How could a man to whom his country had given so much treat its flag with such disrespect? Had he given no thought to the innumerable members of the American military who were no longer able to stand for the anthem because they’d lost their legs on the battleground fighting under that flag?
The story seemed about to die down when more information materialized. In a widely quoted story, sports blogger Terez Owens wrote that it was actually Kaepernick’s girlfriend, Nessa Diab (known popularly as Nessa), a devout Muslim, Berkeley grad, and You Tube star turned MTV personality, who had talked him into staying seated for the anthem. Football experts offered another theory: Kaepernick is a third-string QB whose performance on the field has been less than stellar; was his anthem sit-down a desperate effort to force the front office to keep him on the roster, for fear that firing him might be construed as punishment for his opinions?
Then there was the T-shirt. Kaepernick held a locker-room press conference after his fateful action. He was wearing a T-shirt. And not just any T-shirt. This one featured several pictures of Fidel Castro with Malcolm X.
Apparently, then, Kaepernick is a fan of the murderous Cuban dictator. Like a considerable number of other people in the Western world, he would seem to have a rosy – and deeply misinformed – picture of Cuban life under Castro. The preponderance of immediately available evidence suggests that he is one of many millions, indeed, who have bought the Cuban line that the Castro regime, among many other magnificent accomplishments, has created a colorblind society. Alas, that is a lie. A big one. In fact, official racism is fierce in Cuba. President Obama even mentioned it in his Havana speech last March. The other day, Mark Hemingway, in a piece about Kaepernick, cited a 2013 New York Times article whose headline says it all: “For Blacks in Cuba, the Revolution Hasn’t Begun.”
(Of course, to the extent that the headline hints that Cuba’s revolution has benefited anybody other than Cuba’s elite, that’s a problem. But it’s also a blog entry for another day.)
So it goes. Colin Kaepernick won’t stand up for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the National Anthem of the democratic nation in which he lives and thrives far beyond the imagining of most people on this planet. But he wears with apparent pride an item of clothing celebrating a man who has oppressed an entire country for over half a century, denying its citizens even the most basic elements of freedom and human rights, all the while cruelly punishing dissenters with imprisonment, torture, and even execution.
We can only hope that Kaepernick will soon supplement his athletic skills with a more sophisticated and comprehensive understanding of the very real differences between the U.S. and Cuba. And that, if he doesn’t, the young people who look up to him as a sports hero will know better than to adopt his benighted political views.