Reimer: Athletes must do more than sit if they want to enact social change

Alex Reimer
August 17, 2017 - 2:48 pm

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Colin Kaepernick became the most polarizing athlete in the country one year ago, when he decided to kneel during the national anthem. When first asked about his protest, Kaepernick said he wanted to bring attention to police brutality in African-American neighborhoods. He started a movement, with players all the way down to the high school level following suit.

But Kaepernick didn’t vote for president, calling Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton “racists” and “proven liars.” When Trump got elected, Kaepernick said it "didn't really matter." Two months later, Jeff Sessions was confirmed as Attorney General, and promptly ordered a review of all existing consent decrees, which are agreements held between the Justice Department and city police departments to address misconduct. 

Trump, meanwhile, appeared to endorse police brutality last month. In a speech to the Suffolk County Police Department in New York, the President urged cops to rough up suspects. 

One must wonder if Kaepernick feels differently nine months into Trump’s administration. The kneeling made for a powerful visual, but didn’t change any policy. Maybe he should have encouraged his followers to vote, too. 

It looks like more NFL players are going to protest during the national anthem this season. Some, such as Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins, will raise their fists in the air. Others, including Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett and Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, will sit. Bennett is urging white players to join the cause, saying it would “really get things changed.” 

No, it would not. 

In the BBC documentary “HyperNormalisation,” filmmaker Adam Curtis argues liberals have retreated into cyberspace, creating a fake reality to shield themselves from the real world. This was evident when President Barack Obama’s Charlottesville response became the most-liked tweet ever. The accomplishment was celebrated throughout the Internet. “Sorry Trump, but Obama’s tweet on Charlottesville is now the most popular of all time,” Vogue wrote.

Tastes like victory! Except, three days earlier, white supremacists held a violent rally in Charlottesville, where one counter-protester was killed. They were emboldened by the President of the United States, who blamed the violence on “both sides” and said some “very fine people” were marching alongside the neo-Nazis. Obama’s popular tweet is a meaningless consolation prize.

There’s been an insurgence of energy around progressive causes since Trump’s inauguration. On the first weekend of his presidency, millions of women –– and men –– marched in cities across the country to stand up for their rights. But Democrats have gone 0-4 in special elections this year, including in Georgia’s 6th congressional district, where Trump only defeated Clinton by 1.5 percentage points. In Montana, a Republican congressional candidate who assaulted a reporter ousted his Democratic opponent in the general election.

Granted, these are all red districts. But Democrats have done little except lose races for the last eight years. Republicans control all three branches of the federal government and more than two-thirds of governorships. It’s getting harder to supplant them, too, with state Republicans pushing for more restrictive voting laws. Trump, who’s set up a voter fraud commission and falsely claims millions of undocumented immigrants voted in the last election, backs those efforts.

Kaepernick’s protest didn't stop any of that. His community work, which included donating $1 million to various charitable organizations, is the true legacy he’s leaving. Lynch deserves to be commended for his work with Oakland community groups as well. 

Those actions touch individual lives. Kneeling during the national anthem is just television fodder for Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe to debate into the abyss. 

Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman says five NFL players told him the events in Charlottesville will spark widespread protests across the league. But ultimately, that’s just a sideshow. Change can only be created through widespread mobilization and activism. Sitting down during the “Star-Spangled Banner” is neither of those things.

Athletes aren’t obligated to pass an activism litmus test before speaking out about social issues. But Bennett says he wants to enact change. He must do more than get white players to sit with him during the anthem if he wants to accomplish that.

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