Up to now, I haven’t written anything about—or, really, even thought anything about—the situation surrounding Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who has refused to stand during the National Anthem in protest of America’s many sins against African-Americans.
I have ignored this story for three excellent reasons. First, until last week, I had no idea who Colin Kaepernick is. Second, although I like football in general, I’ve found the NFL to be an increasingly evil organization and, therefore, have tried my best to pretend it doesn’t exist. Third—and most importantly—I really couldn’t give less of a Schlitz about what any athlete thinks about current affairs—just as I don’t heed the political opinions of actors, musicians or most public officials.
When you get right down to it, there are maybe 15 people in America whose views on controversial subjects I truly respect, and not a single one of them has a day job in the NFL. I have been informed by knowledgeable sources that Colin Kaepernick is not a terribly high-ranking player, but what would it matter if he were? So far as I know, there is no proven correlation between athleticism and any greater wisdom, and in any case, why would you turn to your sports heroes to tell you how to think about anything other than sports?
Mind you, this doesn’t mean that athletes shouldn’t express themselves about issues they care about. Olympic swimmers notwithstanding, there is little evidence that professional athletes are any less intelligent than the average American, and if they decide to use their platform to say what they really think, who are we, their fellow citizens, to stop them? If a crooked, racist reality TV host gets to run his mouth just because he happens to be running for president, why wouldn’t we extend the same courtesy to a football player whose only crime is not scoring enough touchdowns?
Kaepernick’s real problem is that he is employed by an inherently fascistic organization. The NFL is prepared to forgive stars who commit rape, murder and domestic assault, but it absolutely draws the line with players who dare to think for themselves and express unpopular ideas—especially when those ideas conflict with the utopian fantasies that many Americans have apparently bought into about the country in which they live.
One of those fantasies, of course, is that racism is over and black people should just shut the hell up about it. For some reason—and in the face of 400 years’ of evidence—white people just can’t abide the notion that they are a privileged species whose success—collectively and individually—has rested (and still rests) on the backs of black people. They don’t get how “redlining” deprived multiple generations of black families of the sort of wealth that white families take for granted, or how racist drug policies have ruined the lives of countless young black men and women for engaging in behavior that white kids indulge in with impunity.
So when white NFL fans go red in the face and demand that Kaepernick stop making a spectacle of himself and just play football, I wonder about the enormous guilt that must be eating them up inside. About how profoundly unequipped they are to be confronted with uncomfortable truths about the country that has given them so much by virtue of their being white. They don’t want to hear that they have benefited from a rigged society from the moment they were born, and so they resent anyone who gives it to them straight—especially when that person is 100 times more successful than they are.
The problem, in other words, is not Colin Kaepernick. The problem is the army of coaches, fans and executives who are so insecure and close-minded that they can’t tolerate even a single dissenting voice in their carefully-scripted, hyper-patriotic bubble. Again, rapists and murderers are fine, but saying an unkind word about police officers is an outrage.
It’s fascinating, in moments like this, to observe just how many Americans don’t really believe in free speech. How the right to express oneself apparently only applies when it doesn’t make other people queasy. How, when a rich and famous person says something we don’t like, we are temperamentally incapable of just letting it go or (God forbid) engaging the argument.
Nope. In America, even professional sports leagues have become “safe spaces” where unwelcome thoughts are shunned and their speakers reprimanded for opening their mouths at all, as if being an athlete means that you can no longer be a citizen. The problem, you see, isn’t racism—it’s the people with the temerity to identify racism. The problem isn’t crooked cops—it’s the people who dare to suggest that some cops are crooked and are protected by a crooked system.
Such is the essence of a totalitarian state: Solving a problem by pretending it doesn’t exist, while smiting those who dare to suggest otherwise. While America, as a whole, is in no immediate danger of becoming such a place, it’s a little scary how many of us seem to wish that we were.