When Muhammad Ali died in June, praise flowed from all over the country not merely for his skill as a boxer, but for his courage and refusal to compromise outside the ring. It was as if time and Parkinson’s had drained all the danger from Ali, somehow turning the hated black Muslim firebrand who had refused to fight “the white man’s war” in Vietnam into a national icon beloved by all.
It’s odd, though. Many of the very same sports fans and media figures who celebrated Ali’s moral bravery a few months ago are today outraged by the decision of Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49er quarterback, not to stand during the national anthem. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick explained, specifically citing strained relations between law enforcement and minorities.
Me, I wouldn’t have done it. When you’re raised in a military family, as I was, the flag and the anthem have a different meaning than they might for other people. (See below). But we live in a rich, complicated and at times contradictory country, and you have to recognize that the flag and anthem can have contradictory meanings for people.
Or maybe you don’t. Donald Trump, for one, thinks that Kaepernick “should find a country that works better for him. Let him try, it’s not gonna happen.”
I can’t speak for Kaepernick, but I don’t think he wants to find another country. I think that like Ali, he wants this country, his country, to do better at living up to the ideals that it espouses. His refusal to stand is a way of saying that in his eyes at least, this country is not yet what it should be. So what some see as a national insult, I see as an act of patriotism.
Kaepernick also has good company in the likes of Jackie Robinson, the one true saint of American sport. In his 1972 autobiography, Robinson recounted the racial slurs that he endured while desegregating baseball, the hatred that he had to shrug off. “As I write this 20 years later, I cannot stand and sing the anthem,” Robinson confessed. “I cannot salute the flag; I know that I am a black man in a white world.”
A little closer to home, we have the example of “Hammering Hank” Aaron, who endured racism of the vilest sort as he challenged Babe Ruth’s career home run mark. On the night that he finally hit historic No. 715 here in Atlanta, baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn was nowhere to be found, an absence that Aaron took as a race-tinged snub. So a few years later, when Kuhn invited him to New York to accept an award, a still angry Aaron refused to go.
Another Atlanta legend, AJC columnist Lewis Grizzard, took great offense at Aaron’s decision. Hank used to be “everybody’s superstar,” Grizzard complained, a statement that was decidedly untrue in the South of the ’60s and ’70s. “But oh Henry, how you have changed. Before you hit No. 714 to tie the Babe’s record in Cincinnati, you sounded off because it was the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death. Suddenly you’re Henry Aaron, activist. Who put you up to that, Jesse Jackson?”
Aaron had “sounded off” that day in Cincinnati by simply asking for a moment of silence in King’s memory. The Reds refused. Like Kaepernick, he had hoped to use his fame to do more than sell tickets and hotdogs. Like Kaepernick, what he got instead was anger and outrage.