Fame offers Kaepernick and fellow athletes a platform for dissent

Nation

HARI SREENIVASAN: But, first: Athletes have had a long tradition of being activists with their political protest. The latest case is of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the national anthem at football games.

Kaepernick also said he would donate $1 million in charity to some of the causes he believes in.

For more on the Kaepernick controversy and the broader context, we turn to William Rhoden, a former sports columnist for The New York Times who has long written on the subject.

First, your thoughts on what's been happening this past week.

WILLIAM C. RHODEN, Sports Columnist: Well, you know, it's pretty phenomenal, the controversy, but, in a way, I think we should probably thank Kaepernick, because he's really gotten this into a deeper history of the anthem, of the author of the anthem, of the background of the author of the anthem, of Francis Scott Key slaves.

And there was this very controversial third stanza of the national anthem, which, you know, maybe talks about being very kind of unsympathetic to slaves. So, I think that it has been good in one sense, in that it's gotten the country to really think a lot more deeply about who we are as a nation and a lot of our hypocrisy.

I think, in terms of Kaepernick, I think it has also once again made us realize the power of athletes, of these people who are in these very prominent positions because, you know, sports is sort of the cultural — has become maybe one of the primary cultural foundations of this country.

And now that you're having especially, particularly young African-American men who are beginning to realize — A, they're becoming much more fluent in our history and are really becoming unafraid to use this podium to express views that are controversial and not controversial, and using this sort of national anthem as sort of the lightning rod, you know, for a lot of these controversies.

So, I think it's really been — it's really been fascinating.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But athletes have had a long history of being outwardly political, active in social causes.

WILLIAM C. RHODEN: Right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We're quick to think about Muhammad Ali. We're quick to think about the moment at the Olympics when the fists were raised up.

WILLIAM C. RHODEN: Right.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But there was also a pretty good quiet spell where athletes chose not to be involved.

WILLIAM C. RHODEN: Yes, when the — as the money started increasing.

I came of age from — you know, when I was 16 years old, Jim Brown suddenly announced his retirement from the game because his owner, Arthur Modell, Art Modell, has sort of been chiding him about not reporting to training camp because he was filming movies.

And, at that point, Brown was 29 years old, was the greatest player ever. And, basically, he held a press conference on the movie set and said, I'm done.

When I was 17 years old, Ali said that he wasn't going to fight in Vietnam. When I was 18, it was Smith and Carlos at the '68 Mexico Olympics with the salute.

So, that was sort of my politicization. And that is how I became — this is how athletes should react and should respond publicly. Then I think you mentioned that long stretch of time. I think what happened is that, as the money really became — started to enter — play a more prominent part, and people got agents now, now athletes started getting agents, and agents were saying, hey, man, you know, let's take the path of least resistance.

Now, you know, I guess the question is, why all of a sudden are we coming back to this? Why do you have some of the greatest names in sports, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, you know, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony…

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michael Jordan.

WILLIAM C. RHODEN: Yes, Michael — well, that's another story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: I mean, I bring Michael Jordan up because I would say that he was in the quiet period, right?

He was one of the athletes that did not — didn't take a position.

WILLIAM C. RHODEN: Oh, well, you know what?

HARI SREENIVASAN: And here he is just a few weeks ago deciding to give a million to two different organizations.

WILLIAM C. RHODEN: For a long time, Michael Jordan became the model of what an athlete, a black athlete should be, which is neutral, because you want to take money from both sides. You don't want to make anybody angry. You want to placate the white audience. As he famously was quoted as saying, Republicans buy sneakers, too.

And I think that, because of his prominence and because how great he was as an athlete, that sort of became the standard for a lot of athletes, is this whole politically neutral stance.

And I think that it's interesting that — and, as you mentioned a couple of weeks ago, he donated money to both sides, the police side and to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right.

WILLIAM C. RHODEN: Also, I think a lot of athletes realize that, what is the power structure going to do?

You have got a league, an NBA, that's almost 80 percent African-American players. The National Football League is almost 70 percent of African-American players. Are they going to fire everybody? Are they going to punish everybody?

I think that what we're seeing is a lot of athletes not being afraid to roar, whether you agree with it or not.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, William Rhoden joining us from New York tonight, thanks so much.

WILLIAM C. RHODEN: My pleasure.

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