Why Colin Kaepernick Is a Patriot

Is it necessary to stand for the National Anthem to be considered patriotic?

Posted Aug 31, 2016

As opening day for the regular NFL season to start looms closer, there is a lot of football related news to focus on. Most relevant, perhaps, to this forum, is reflecting on the uproar San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick triggered when he refused to stand for the national anthem during a pre-season game. His act of defiance in tandem with Kaepernick’s reasons and the subsequent backlash he received on social media in the aftermath, have put American patriotism in the spotlight.

In perhaps one of the most eloquent reflections on this act, NBA all-time leading scorer Abdul-Jabbar wrote a piece for the Washington Post where he reflects on the true meaning of patriotism, and what role athletes can and should play in using their voices to speak out against perceived injustices. Abdul-Jabbar (2016) reflects that:

The discussion of the nuances of patriotism is especially important right now, with Trump and Clinton supporters each righteously claiming ownership of the ‘most patriotic’ label. Patriotism isn’t just getting teary-eyed on the Fourth of July or choked up at war memorials. It’s supporting what the Fourth of July celebrates and what those war memorials commemorate: the U.S. Constitution’s insistence that all people should have the same rights and opportunities and that it is the obligation of the government to make that happen. When the government fails in those obligations, it is the responsibility of patriots to speak up and remind them of their duty. (para 2)

Indeed, he touches on two distinctive forms of patriotism that researchers have identified. Rather than being unidimensional, scholars have identified that patriotism can be categorized as “blind” or “constructive” (Sahar, 2008). As Sahar (2008) identifies:

Blind patriotism is characterized by unquestioning loyalty to one’s country and resistance to criticism of it. Constructive patriotism, on the other hand, allows for critical analysis of the country’s actions and even opposition to them for the purpose of positive change. (190)

Thus, the act of defiance that Kaepernick engaged in actually embodies a specific type of patriotism: that of constructive allegiance to one’s nation. The player was actually exercising his right as an American to speak out against injustices by deliberately opting out of the ritual of standing during the national anthem.

Source: Pixabay/eileenploh

Before judging Kaepernick’s act, it is important to note the reason he gave for refusing to stand. Again, this was not intended as an act of disrespect (although, interestingly, blind patriots in particular would interpret his act as disrespectful). In Kaepernick’s own words, his refusal to stand was an act of defiance to bring attention to police brutality against African Americans. He went on to assert that he is standing with people who are being oppressed. As Abdul-Jabbar (2016) wrote:

Colin Kaepernick explained why he will not stand during the national anthem: ‘There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust [that] people aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for—freedom, liberty, justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.’ (para 4). (To hear Kaepernick’s post-game interview click on the video embedded here.

One could argue that Kaepernick actually chose the much more difficult path by abiding by his sense of right and wrong and putting a target on himself by choosing not to stand, when standing would have been the path of least resistance. Indeed, “one of the ironies of the way some people express their patriotism is to brag about our freedoms, especially freedom of speech, but then brand as unpatriotic those who exercise this freedom to express dissatisfaction with the government’s record of upholding the Constitution” (Abdul-Jabbar, 2016, para 4). Moreover, as one ESPN commentator has written, “Colin Kaepernick stood tall while sitting down, which is not an easy thing to do. In fact, what he did in benching himself for the national anthem on Friday night was the hardest thing he could possibly do” (O’Conner, 2016, para 1).

As fellow PT blogger Niose (2015) has reflected on the ways that patriotism can become destructive, he hints at the perils of blind patriotism in particular when he writes:

Amid all of this symbolic and emotional expression of patriotism, critical thinking is rarely encouraged. Out of concern for American troops being sent to the Middle East to die, for example, one could seek out information on the underlying reasons for strife in the region—an intellectual journey that would go back at least a century and reveal an array of colonialism, western-backed coups, and exploitation—but this is much more difficult than slapping a magnet on one’s car, and it might lead one to question the wisdom of militaristic policies that benefit from blind patriotism. This aversion to facts is a defining characteristic of modern American patriotism. As Americans wave their flags and puff out their chests with national pride, they are oblivious to facts relevant to their own civil discourse. Only 35 percent of Americans could name even a single justice on the Supreme Court, according to the New York Times. The same piece revealed that 30 percent could not name the vice president, while even fewer could place the American Revolution in the correct century. It only gets worse when we ask Americans to consider facts outside their own borders. Reports show that as many as 85 percent cannot locate Iraq on a map and more than half can’t locate India. (para 9-10)

He concludes with:

This staggering lack of knowledge, combined with a blind and emotional patriotism, is a formula for disaster. The result is a proliferation of uninformed American exceptionalism that is akin to a social narcissism, a self-centered sense of importance and superiority that can have dire consequences. (Niose, 2015, para 11)

The greatest irony when looking at the social media backlash that Kaepernick has received is that for all of those accusing him of being un-American (many on Twitter that have spoken out against his act have specifically used the hashtag 9/11 as if to underscore the quarterback’s disloyalty to the nation) his behavior actually embodies constructive patriotism. Perhaps as Abdul-Jabbar has reflected—an athlete who also, by the way, used his voice to join a specific summit of professional athletes who wanted to support Muhammad Ali’s stand against the Vietnam War—we should, “let athletes love their country in their own ways”.

Indeed, that would perhaps be the most American gesture of all.

Abudl-Jabbar, K. (2016, August 30). Insulting Colin Kaepernick says more about our patriotism than his. The Washington Post. Retrieved on August 31 2016 from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/08/30/insulting-co...

Niose, D. (2015, March 15). Is American patriotism getting out of hand? Psychology Today. Retrieved on August 31, 2016 from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/our-humanity-naturally/201503/is-am...

O’Connor, I. (2016, August 27). You can knock Colin Kaepernick—don’t call him un-American. ESPN. Retrieved on August 31, 2016 from: http://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/17405859/colin-kaepernick-did-controv...

Sahar, G. (2008). Patriotism, Attributions for the 9/11 attacks, and Support for War: Then and Now. Basic and Applied Social Psychology: 30, 189-197.

Azadeh Aalai Copyright 2016