Football

Jimmy Farris commentary: Kaepernick proves why America is great

San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick (7) and Eric Reid (35) kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday.
San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick (7) and Eric Reid (35) kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Sunday. AP

News flash: Colin Kaepernick isn’t what’s wrong with America. He’s proof that our beautiful but imperfect country is one of the few places on this planet where ideas and intentions are what truly matter, not symbols.

As a former NFL player, I have been especially disappointed with the discourse around this issue and believe those in opposition couldn’t be more misguided about Kaepernick, whose recent decision to kneel during our national anthem has ignited an important conversation about what it means to be an American.

It’s discouraging, yet telling, that someone like Donald Trump, for instance, thinks that if America isn’t “working” for people like Kaepernick, they should leave. They seem to believe because Kaepernick makes a lot of money playing professional football, he can’t speak out against injustice and unfairness. That if he doesn’t view the world through the same selfish and monetary lens they do, he must be doing this for attention, or because he wants to be released from his contract.

This is how cynical we’ve become as a society. The expectation is, if you’re rich, you should enjoy your wealth and shut your mouth and care not one bit about the fact that people who look like you, but might not have the same athleticism as you, are being denied their Constitutional rights on a daily basis.

The people who think Kaepernick is arguing he’s been oppressed haven’t bothered to listen to his position, and that’s extremely disappointing. They’d rather try to undermine his credibility — or pretend he’s insulting the military — than hear him out. That might be the most un-American act in all of this controversy, the idea that you keep your grievances to yourself lest they force us to have a difficult conversation about the state of our union.

Kaepernick has stated, repeatedly, that he doesn’t feel oppressed or discriminated against. Rather, he is taking a stand for the millions of black and brown people in this country who are, but don’t have a voice or platform. I applaud him and respect him for having the courage to speak on their behalf.

Here are five reasons why he should continue to kneel until we make real progress toward acknowledging that, despite our best intentions, America isn’t holding up its end of the bargain for all citizens. And that’s something we should all be appalled by.

▪ The notion that Kaepernick’s unwillingness to stand for the national anthem shows a lack of gratitude for the country that “gave him everything he has” is incredibly short-sighted. No one gave Kaepernick anything. His hard work, dedication and passion for what he loves to do propelled him to the success he has had. That is what capitalism is all about. As a former undrafted free agent who played six seasons and won a Super Bowl, I can assure you, jobs in the NFL are earned, not given.

Many believe not standing for our national anthem shows a lack of character or patriotism. But as Americans, how many of us are familiar with the anthem’s complicated history? It was literally written by a slave owner who, in the third verse, celebrated the death of slaves who were trying to fight for their freedom.

America is a wonderful story, but it’s also a messy story, and it would stand to reason that we try to acknowledge our sins. Instead, we’d rather erase them and pretend that if you feel uncomfortable with whitewashing history, you lack character. That’s embarrassing.

▪ Never has Kaepernick said that he does not respect police officers and the job they do. He simply wants the .01 percent of “bad cops” to be held accountable ... just like he, and every other American is on their job. Are all cops bad? Certainly not, and not one is pretending as much. But there are literally cops right there in the Bay Area who are abusing their badges, and they are resisting reform and accountability at every turn.

Just this month, California prosecutors announced they were charging seven Oakland police officers for their involvement with an underage prostitute. In 2009, an Oakland police officer who was dismissed from the force after killing two unarmed men successfully appealed his firing, and was reinstated two years later with full back pay.

What about the blatantly racist text messages exchanged by members of San Francisco Police Department? Kaepernick should ignore instances like this in his own community just because he’s wealthy? Say that out loud and think about how irrational it sounds.

Yes, the good, honest, caring officers who take pride in their job are being unfairly categorized because of the reckless, careless actions of a few. But the “good” officers need to speak up, call out the bad ones of the group when their actions are clearly wrong. If that happened, perhaps some of the trust and respect of the police that has been lost in the black community could be restored.

▪ I recently debated on HLN Weekend Express whether it was appropriate for Kaepernick and other NFL players to protest on 9/11. Countless numbers of people have stated that 9/11 is not the day to be “protesting” the national anthem.

My question to them is this: When, exactly, IS a good day to stand up and speak out against decades of racism, discrimination, police brutality and unfair treatment of black and brown people in America? If not now, when? People who don’t want to talk about reform, who insist on upholding the status quo, always insist there will be time for your grievances at a later date.

No one has ownership of 9/11, nor should they tell anyone how to feel on that day. The men and women who died in the Twin Towers were people of all races and all religions. We honor them by reminding ourselves that America is a place worth critiquing and striving to uphold. The suggestion that these players should lose their job and their livelihood for quietly and peaceful kneeling is ridiculous, and it goes against one of this country’s founding principles. Liberty and justice for ALL, not just for those who conform to your narrow definition of patriotism.

▪ Kaepernick and other pro athletes are — and should be — role models for your youth. If you think his refusal to stand for the national anthem is setting a bad example, I wholeheartedly disagree. I would love to use Kaepernick as an example to my children that it is RIGHT to stand up for those you believe are being unfairly treated. If you see injustice in the world, don’t bury your head in a symbol and ignore it because it doesn’t affect you. Speak out. Strive to build a “more perfect union,” don’t insist people deny the truth because pointing it out makes you uncomfortable.

With bullying at near epidemic levels in our schools, more kids with the courage to stand up to bullies and give voice to those being bullied could have a serious impact. Kaepernick is an inspiration to young kids to stand up for what is right, and speak out against what is wrong.

▪ Yes, Kaepernick is exercising his freedom of speech. Over and over again, the Supreme Court has reminded us that the most important part of the First Amendment is protecting unpopular speech, even if it hurts your feelings. The suggestion that if you don’t like America you should leave America shows enormous ignorance of the very ideas Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton used to shape our nation.

They wanted thoughtful arguments. They wanted us to speak out without fear of being thrown in prison, or stripped of your wealth or marched in front of a firing squad. Soldiers who fight in the military and die for our country aren’t doing so on the promise that you’ll stand quietly and stare at the flag during a football game, they’re fighting and dying so you’ll have the choice. That’s hard for some people to understand, but it’s absolutely the truth.

As much as people try to discredit and silence Kaepernick because they’re afraid to talk about injustice, because they need safe spaces like football games so they can watch athletes perform but not speak, Kaepernick is winning this debate. In a way, he’s already won, even if he’s out of the NFL next year. Many 49ers and NFL fans, as well as teammates and players across the league, support his views. Even the ones who don’t are showing a willingness to talk about how we can make the world a better place. The 49ers organization has pledged to match Kaepernick’s donation of $1 million to address the problems he is articulating. He has long been involved in charitable work in the local communities and has always put his money where his mouth is. The spike in his jersey sales suggests that many Americans don’t find his actions repugnant.

Kaepernick is risking his career, his livelihood, and his reputation to stand up for something he believes in. In America, we applaud courage like that. We celebrate our freedoms and the people who have the strength to exercise them, especially when they are speaking up for those without a voice. I was deeply disappointed to see to the “patriotic” members of society react with such hate and vitriol regarding his actions.

The same people demanding we show unity on Sept. 11 couldn’t resist loudly booing President Obama as he delivered a taped message before every NFL game, asking all of us to come together and believe in the American promise. If nothing else, that proves Kaepernick is right, that some people think America belongs to them more than it does to others.

I’m proud to be an American. I’m proud to call Colin Kaepernick one, too.

Farris is a Lewiston native and Lewiston High graduate who played in the NFL from 2001-07. He can be contacted at jimmyrfarris@gmail.com.

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