Beyond Kaepernick

Should international athletes stand for their country’s anthem?

Last month, San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick made headlines by refusing to stand during the playing of the United States’ national anthem, saying “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” His teammate, safety Eric Reid, joined the anthem protest in the 49ers’ final preseason game. Seattle Seahawks’ cornerback Jeremy Lane and Denver Broncos’ linebacker Bandon Marshall, followed suit.

Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem (A.V. Club)
Colin Kaepernick kneels during the national anthem (A.V. Club)

The ensuing public argument was staunchly defended on both fronts. On side argued that Americans should stand for the anthem out of respect for the freedoms they enjoy and the people who fight to defend those freedoms. The other replied that one of those freedoms—freedom of expression—includes the right to not stand during the anthem as part of a nonviolent critique of a particular aspect of American society.

In early September, Columbus Blue Jackets’ coach John Tortorella, who is leading the United States’ hockey team in the World Cup of Hockey, added a new wrinkle to the debate by saying “if any of my [Team USA] players sit on the bench for the national anthem, they will sit there for the rest of the game.” Tortorella’s stance represents a more nuanced argument, the gist being that if you don’t have enough pride in your country to stand for the national anthem, then you shouldn’t wear your country’s colors and represent it in international competition.These two arguments have been rehashed in various forums, and neither side is likely to convince the other to abandon its position. I will say briefly that in my opinion, the beauty of America is that there are no acts which you MUST NOT DO, besides depriving others of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There seems no contradiction in saying one can fully appreciate the many benefits of living in the United States of America and still desire a greater protection of rights for all citizens, just as loving parents can discipline their children precisely because they love them.

How could an athlete defuse this argument? We can imagine Player X holding the position that his country is the greatest country in the world, but that it is not perfect, particularly in the manner in which it treats non-white citizens. Player X would certainly not want to represent any other country, whose faults he believes to be greater than those of his own nation. In fact, Player X might claim that refusing to stand for his country’s national anthem is the best way to represent his country, which claims to guarantee equal rights and encourage freedom of expression. In doing so, he also brings attention to his cause and creates additional opportunities to effect the change he desires.

Player X’s opponents might counter that competing for one’s country is a voluntary action and one which offers a tacit endorsement of that country as a whole. To not stand during the anthem runs contradictory to that decision and the apparent show of support. In all likelihood, Player X could have brought attention to his cause and remained more consistent in his position by boycotting international competition.

This variation of the anthem argument helps us get at some of the rationales underlying the current anthem protests in the NFL. We should remember that the American flag is a symbol, the anthem is a symbol, and not standing for the anthem is also a symbol. Symbols are open to interpretation and mean different things to different people. We need to understand what these anthem protests mean to the protestors in order to fully judge their actions. We need to hear their arguments, evaluate them as arguments, and weigh the truth of their claims. Our symbols are not us. We deserve to be judged on our actions and our motivations for those actions. Both sides of this debate deserve that respect.