Before the start of a ball game anywhere in the United States, the crowd is asked to stand for the national anthem _ “The Star Spangled Banner” _ and the presentation of the national flag. They stand and place their right hands over their hearts. Members of the military, the police force and firefighters stand at attention and salute. There is not a ball game of any type in America _ from elementary school to the pros _ where this doesn’t happen.

No law in the United States demands that the national anthem be played at public gatherings such as football games. It’s only a custom, but one that is not challenged. Maybe because of its prevalence, the national anthem has come to be observed merely as a perfunctory ritual, a routine, and most of the fans can’t wait for it to be over so the game can begin. Immediately after the last strains of the music, one can hear the refrain around the ball park, “Play ball!” The ball game, after all, is what they paid their money to see, not a rendition of the national anthem.

It is not against the law in the U.S. for a person not to stand for the national anthem if they don’t want to, though there are more than a few Americans who would love for Congress to pass a law that would mete out severe punishment to anyone who would refuse to stand for the anthem. So when Colin Kaepernick of the SanFrancisco 49ers decided to sit on the bench when the anthem was played before a game against the Green Bay Packers on August 26, it drew the ire of self-described patriots from across the nation who hold the flag and the anthem sacred.

Explaining why he sat on the bench during the national anthem, Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way…” (nfl.com)

Almost half a century ago, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists in the Black Power Salute while standing on the podium during the national anthem _ played in their honor for crossing the finish line first and second in the 200-meter sprint, winning gold and silver medals _ at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, protesting against the, for them, unacceptable practice of segregation that Black people and other minorities routinely endured at that time in America.

Today _ almost fifty years after Smith and Carlos raised their fists during the national anthem _ Colin Kaepernick is choosing to sit on the bench or kneel during the anthem at nationally televised professional football games in which he is a player. What’s more, other players are joining him, and not just professional players, college and high school players too.

American football is the most popular spectator sport in the U.S. attracting huge crowds at stadiums and a national television audience numbering in the hundreds of millions every Sunday during the season. By choosing not to stand for the national anthem, Kaepernick is using the popularity of football and the prominence of his reputation as a football player to draw attention to the killing of Black Americans at the hands of the police across the country. In the media, Kaepernick has been attacked for grandstanding and calling attention to himself, so were Smith and Carlos in their day.

Though Kaepernick has not broken any law by refusing to stand for the national anthem, he has lost endorsements worth millions of dollars. Even without the endorsements, though, he is still richer than all but one percent of the entire human population. So losing endorsements because of his defiance doesn’t threaten his standard of living. Still, he’s received death threats from those who no doubt are perfectly capable of killing him.

The wealth of America dwarfs that of every other nation on Earth and the American military has such overwhelming might that it is invincible like no other country or empire has ever been. America’s real problems, though, are not from beyond its borders but from widespread human rights abuses festering at home. If we Americans cannot make our country fair and just for all, then the American flag and the national anthem stand only for corporate greed, war mongering, and privilege for the few _ symbols of a nation gone terribly wrong, no matter how rich and powerful it is.

In an opinion piece in the August 30, 2016 edition of The Washington Post, basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes that Colin Kaepernick should be admired for risking his career because of the choice he has made.

“What should horrify Americans,” Abdul-Jabbar writes in The Post, “is not Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated during the national anthem, but that nearly 50 years after Ali was banned from boxing for his stance and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.”

The ideal of any nation should be to protect all of its citizens from harm, provide each of them with ample opportunities to develop themselves so they can contribute to society by living the best lives it is possible for them to live, and ensure that all of them _ regardless of ethnic origins or socio-economic circumstances _ are granted their full measure of the rights and privileges of citizenship. A nation, after all, is made up of flesh-and-blood people, not flags and anthems.

Colin Kaepernick is doing more than just protesting against injustice in America. His demonstration shows that he believes and hopes that America might still live up to its best ideals, that we truly can be a great nation if we choose to be. This is real patriotism, and by his choice, it’s clear that Colin Kaepernick is a real patriot.
Published in THE KOREA TIMES on Monday, September 26, 2006.