BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 08/29/2016

Thiel: American dissent should be 51st state

49ers QB Colin Kaepernick broke sporting form Friday when he sat for the national anthem to protest social injustice. Some sports fans don’t like it, but there is nothing more American than dissent.

Colin Kaepernick is used to being under pressure. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

As the firestorm builds — not coincidentally in a most cacophonous presidential election year — over QB Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit for the national anthem before the 49ers-Packers game Friday, let’s all do ourselves a favor and consider this point:

We are historically, politically and socially, a nation of dissenters. It is the thing that keeps us together and tears us apart.

If you can wrap your mind around that screaming incongruity, you’ll be able to take Kaepernick’s awkward but sincere gesture in stride: A law-abiding protest of one designed to provoke the many in a country where dissent is the bedrock agent of change.

From the Mayflower to the first Continental Congress to Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt to Brown v. the Board of Education to Rosa Parks to Muhammad Ali to Curt Flood to, yes, Donald Trump, Americans have been — to hijack the immortal expression of esteemed sportswriter Dan Jenkins — a bunch of pisser-offers.

While pisser-offer-ness is hardly unique to America — see the international roll call that includes Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Jesus, among many others — it is the place where it is institutionalized like no other.

My travels to other lands have left me with an overriding impression from non-Americans gazing from afar: They are consistently amazed at how such incorrigible, goofy people get so much done.

Whether it be Normandy, the moon, polio or the internet, contrarian Americans seem to be on the front end of a lot. Back ends too — Good morning, Vietnam! — but we’re not talking about perfection here. We’re talking aspiration and ambition, often at great risk.

I think that was what Vice President Joe Biden was talking about in an interview with the Atlantic that came out over the weekend. Regarding American foreign policy, he said there is a net migration by Mexicans out of the U.S. back to their homeland because it is becoming more stable, thanks in part to U.S. help.

He came up with an amusing analogy.

“Because, guess what? It’s like Ghostbusters, man,” he said. “When there’s a problem anywhere else, call Ghostbusters. We’re Ghostbusters; so it makes sense that we are there to help them because it helps us.”

Biden went on to say that in non-cinematic life, it’s important to pick your fights. But regarding Mexico, Trump wants to build a wall to stop illegal immigration, an idea of profound foolishness, but simplistic enough to trick scared people.

The rest of the world can’t believe we’re even having a presidential-level argument over this. But we are. That’s how we do things. We aren’t any more doomed to the rage of Gozer the Gozerian today than we were in the 1960s, the 1930s or the 1860s.

The movie warned us: Don’t cross the streams.

We always do. We get slimed. We get up.

In my career writing about sports, I’ve always been amused by a ritual in baseball, the most American of our major distractions. The game not only indulges, it celebrates a custom that is not a defined part of the game, yet symbolizes us:

Arguing with the umpire.

We love it when a player or manager challenges authority and risks his continued participation. Confrontation with higher-ups is so in our cultural DNA that we spectators accept this spontaneous theater gleefully. Veracity of the argument is far secondary to the engagement. Other sports have conflicts with officials; none indulge the triple-hat-kick with such triumphalism.

Former Mariners manager Lou Piniella was often embarrassed by replays on stadium video of his legendary tirades, which doesn’t mean he didn’t mean to do them. Given his lesser-known virtues of compassion and responsibility, I’d happily nominate him when the time comes to identify The Ultimate American.

Which gets us back to Kaepernick — not as an Ultimate American, but as a guy upset enough about injustice to put a lot at risk.

As with a baseball manager, he picked a fight he cannot win. It doesn’t matter to him. But his anger is not over safe or out. He’s willing to jeopardize public acceptance, endorsement money and his sports legacy — from now on, he’ll be “that guy” — to take a stand on a matter bigger than him or his team.

Each interception will be met with cackles and taunts of a more cruel variety. Some teammates will suspect he’s distracted. Critics will dismiss Kaepernick as a spoiled, millionaire dumb jock lashing out at a subject he understands only lightly.

I’m not putting him in league with Alexander Hamilton or Martin Luther King here. But I’m thinking he can go a little Norma Rae without getting out over his skis.

In inviting controversy while calling attention to an injustice, he could have calculated better by saying something like, “The courage and sacrifice of our military to protect a right I now exercise humbles me. But their deeds also embolden me to do what I can to move America to a commitment to justice that isn’t merely words on parchment.”

But he didn’t. So the stick-to-sports crowd will have at him, and I get that.

We have constructed the sports industry to be part of the entertainment industry — a haven from reality. But the fact is we have always politicized sports. If you think otherwise, why do the 200-plus member nations of the International Olympic Committee insist on marching into the Opening Ceremony under national flags?

Keeping issues of race, politics and and justice out of the dialogue of sports is no more possible than keeping tide off the beach.

Dissent should be considered America’s 51st state. Pisser-offer-ness needs to be more than an attitude.



  • Jamo57

    Thanks for the read, Art. Another great piece.

    Yes, we are quite the dysfunctional family. And we have no idea how much the rest of the world pays attention to us while we have no idea what’s going on in the rest of the world. LOL.

    And the irony of folks espousing “liberty and freedom” often are the ones that yell and scream at someone being “un-American” when exercising their 1st Amendment rights in saying something they don’t want to hear. Or want “government out of our lives” unless it is to codify their belief system into law and regulation when they get the chance.

    It’s amazing we’ve lasted so long and “done so much” as you point out.

    • art thiel

      Thanks, J. When it comes to deciphering America, ironies lay thick and heavy. So if we must bear this burden, I am voting for president Bill Murray as Dr. Venkman.

  • tor5

    So well said, Art. I don’t like what Kaep is doing, and was really disappointed. But over time realized that the anthem and flag symbolize lots of different things to different people. I don’t have to take his stance (or sit) as an affront to my feelings about them. I’ll take him at his word that he is protesting against that piece of America that is deplorable – the undeniable racial animus that seems all the more evident today. I still don’t like what he’s doing. But I’ll give him his say, and perhaps some begrudging respect for what he’s sacrificing.

    • art thiel

      A reasoned response, tor. A primary strategy of protest is to make comfortable people uncomfortable, and perhaps inspire them to think differently about issues.

      • Bruce McDermott

        The trouble is, his words weren’t all that effective or well thought out, in my view, so I’m unclear how inspiring they are going to be. He is going to sit until when? Until there is no racial injustice in America? Until there is some quantum less injustice? What’s his personal test? If we knew the test, it would be easier for some of us to stand (or sit) with him. But at best it’s just an open-ended complaint against a diffuse target. That, plus he decides to throw in a reference to “Clinton’s e-mails” and how she should be in jail–sorry, but I don’t think he knows buptkis about the law that applies, and has been applied many, many times by authorities with the discretion to bring charges in that regard. Besides, that has nothing whatsoever to do with racial injustice. It’s just part of a brain dump from a brain that’s not really thinking things through very well. I sympathize with one of his concerns, very much–the apparent stacking of the criminal deck against people of color. But his delivery and coherence could use some work, and the potential power of his message is diluted as a result.

        • art thiel

          I tried to make that point in offering another way to articulate his protest, but you said it well, Bruce. He’s not mature or astute enough to carry off this protest in a way that leads to a greater point, or at least an exit.

  • rosetta_stoned

    You know what’s also American?
    Our criticism of his actions.

    Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences of said speech.

    • art thiel

      Of course people are within their rights to object. Not a point of this discussion. He well knew the consequences of his actions; that’s what makes it interesting.

    • art thiel

      True. He claims to have understood he would reap the whirlwind, but I really don’t think he did. Not in this political season.

  • just passing thru

    Good thoughts, Art. Several of my family have served and seen action. As you may imagine, they don’t respect his action. Yet their responses lean towards “he has the right to do this because of what this country stands for, so what is he going to do about it other than dissent?”

    In other words, Kaep, get off your arse and contribute, don’t just sit there and protest.

    • art thiel

      Sometimes dissent IS doing something, because most athletes are otherwise silent. Some criticize athletes for not using their platform for social good. When they do, they are pilloried by many.

  • MrPrimeMinister

    The NFL fan has put up with wife-beaters, cheats, rapists, drug punks, dog-fighters, etc . . .At some point a limit will be reached. At that point, the NFL has a problem. Season ticket holders will cancel. For me the question is, are the national anthem and the flag that limit?

    • art thiel

      I don’t know about a line. Who makes that call? Individual fans can quit the NFL, but I don’t believe I’ve met that person, or heard from him or her. Ninety five percent of NFL players obey the law and try to do the right thing. Kaep broke no law by exercising his right.

      • MrPrimeMinister

        My point is the ticket buying public will eventually ask itself, “do I support this action, or am I offended by it?”

        • art thiel

          There’s been dozens of episodes that repulse some of us. But there’s been only growing demands for NFL tickets, TV and products. People want entertainment, not a confrontation with their consciences. The abuse around concussions should have been enough to turn away some, but no.

  • Scott McBride

    The problem with Colin Kaepernick’s expression of his opinion is that he starts off by offending many people who otherwise might agree with him. He does not understand that the nation whose national anthem he protests against is one of the very few on earth that grant him that right. What irony (but I doubt he can see that).

    Colin Kaepernick is a product of his times: ignorant of our nation’s history, feeding a deep resentment of all things “American”, and frankly lacking manners. if he wants an honest dialog about race relations, then he should write an opinion piece. I guarantee it would be published. Then it would would be a positive contribution to our national conversation instead of his inane antics.

    • art thiel

      He doesn’t have a full understanding of an effective argument. Even though he’s written much on his social media, he’s raging, not persuading. That’s why I suggested a possible better response. It would have refocused more attention on his points than his person.

  • Matt712

    I find myself wishing he were a better player so that his protest wouldn’t come off as a desperate Kardashianesque publicity stunt.
    “Hey everybody, look at me! I still matter!”
    Did he call attention to his cause. I guess so. What was the cause agin? Oh yeah, race inequality in America. ….In other news: Water Is Wet!

    I know that’s not fair.

    If it were Russle Wilson sitting out the Anthem, would we have the same reaction? Don’t know. I suppose I’ll just file this under, “young man doing what he thinks is right with about as much wisdom as a guy his age typically has.”

    • art thiel

      I really don’t think it was a stunt to help his sagging career. If anything, this hurts him with other NFL teams who need a QB.

      A lot of black people affected by police shootings would disagree with your ho-hum dismissal of what’s happening in this country.

      • Tian Biao

        you are absolutely right, Art. This hurts his career, generating controversy and questions at a time when he’s trying to impress a new coach and maybe become a starter again. That alone makes this protest notable. That and the fact that so few athletes are willing to take the risk these days. I’ll be watching the Kap saga with interest. and thanks for the reminder regarding dissent. excellent column. well done.

  • notaboomer

    I never stand for God bless America at MLB games. It’s a sickening religious song married to the permanent 9-11 war state that followed the Supreme Court appointment of Bush/Cheney to the White House. I admire Kaepernick just as I admired Mahmoud Abdul Rauf when he protested the anthem at NBA games and players like Chris Borland, who left the NFL due to its inherent violence. Good call, Art.

  • woofer

    Not standing for the national anthem is a pretty trivial form of protest. That it garnered so much adverse comment is indicative of the rigidly conformist mindset of the NFL and its devotees. Kaep draws far more critical comment for this harmless gesture than he would have for slapping around his wife or girlfriend. What does that tell you?

    • art thiel

      Apparently it isn’t trivial to many who are worked up. Silly as it seems to you, symbols are a big deal in our tribe. In every tribe. Kaep broke no law, but he broke a custom.

      • woofer

        Part of the current sickness of the tribe is the inability to intelligently distinguish good from bad symbols. Good here meaning healthy and life-promoting. Not all symbols are created equal.

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        • art thiel

          The American flag means many things to many people, even if the pledge says, one nation, indivisible. We don’t get to define it for others.

          • woofer

            Yes, but others are being allowed to define it for Kaepernick. That is the point you seem unable to grasp. It’s a double standard — hypocrisy. People keep trying to ignore the fact that Kaepernick did not go out of his way to offend anyone. He just didn’t stand up when the band played. That’s all. Then he was asked about it and gave a straight answer.

  • John M

    Your invocations made this piece dance, Art. Good summation and interesting input from the folks. “He doesn’t have a full understanding of an effective argument” caps it . . .

  • Tman

    Can he walk safely in his own neighborhood when he is not in uniform?

    • Diamond Mask

      Good question. I bet he lives in an excellent neighborhood.

  • Kirkland

    Several years ago I attended a Premiership soccer game in London, and was surprised when “God Save the Queen” wasn’t played. Turns out, that’s she standard pretty much everywhere outside North America and for all sports; that, for regular games they don’t play the national anthem. The anthem is saved for games involving championships, national teams (World Cups and whatnot) and special events like the annual ANZAC Day match in Australian Rules Football.

    This even shows up in non-MLS Sounder games. When the Sounders host a touring European or South American club team like Manchester United, the visitors request that they NOT play their country’s anthem; their players are used to starting play immediately after taking the field, and playing an anthem when a national team isn’t involved is seen as an unnecessary delay.

    Also, when the Sounders are Champions League play, they don’t play anthems before, even if it’s against another MLS team. I think that might be a FIFA or COMCACAF rule.

  • Warchild_70

    I endured the seventies in the Navy with the counterculture, draft dodgers and yes flag burners. Now I’m 65 and I guess the drivel from this brat doesn’t get me too enraged. Been there, saw that, oh well that’s life. It’s his choice to rile the fans. In my belief is that he is pissed off (Great description of American’s Art!) at becoming the second banana with the turk getting very close to his locker. Now I feel that I would be so happy if he took the field at the CLINK and watch the Legion of Boom bounce his unhappy a$$ all over the gridiron. GO HAWKS!!

    • art thiel

      I’m fairly certain this had nothing to do with his status with the Niners. His social media suggested he was building to this for months.

  • ReebHerb

    Kaepernick does have the freedom and right to insult. And, insulted I am.

  • Green Caribou

    I am a very casual football fan. I don’t follow the league that closely. But living in Seattle and having some level of interest in sports I have a decent understanding of what is going on with the teams and that often includes our opposition, such as the 49ers. I heard or saw a headline the other day that said Kaepernick was not going to be starting. No surprise, since there hasn’t been much talk of his quality (at least around here) for a season or 2. Wasn’t he benched last year? Wasn’t there speculation about whether he would be released? Until I heard he was being benched last week I wasn’t even aware if he was still with SF. Then within a couple of days of being benched he makes a highly visible protest and suddenly everyone is talking about him.

    You can probably see where I’m going with this. I have no reason to doubt his sincerity regarding his feelings, and I’m certainly not questioning the legitimacy of his opinions. But the timing to speak up sure is weird. Does he have any history at all of activism? I can’t find (in an admittedly brief search) anyone talking about his political action or outspokenness or anything like that prior to this week. I don’t remember hearing his voice in the tragically high number of debates over police brutality, #blacklivesmatter, or any other instance that drew others out of their shell, like Lebron James and Steph Curry. It’s not a stretch that this has the appearance of opportunism. Having a history of egotistical behavior does him no favors in this regard either.

    I support the need to confront racial issues, and forcing an issue into the public eye is the goal of public protest, and his was obviously very effective, especially since athletics is one of few place in our society that minorities have the biggest stage. But by choosing this moment he invited the perception of cynicism. I suspect that has a great deal to do with at least some of the blowback.

  • Bayview Herb

    Rather than using a reasoned response, he essentially gave us all the one fingered salute.

  • Seattle_Chris

    No one, to my knowledge, is asserting that he broke a law, so this is a non-issue. And few, if any, are quibbling with his right to dissent, or with the fact that such a right is a guarantee afforded by the same flag for which he refuses to stand. So, again, a non-issue.

    Common sense should have told him – and should tell anyone defending him – that creating even the perception of picking a fight with the American flag and national anthem is a brawl that no one, ever, will win, entirely independent of the merits of their cause.

    Incidentally, your swipe at the sanity of Trump’s wall proposal was unnecessary, irrelevant and divisive, even if I agree with it. Referencing Trump, and the air of dissent that has fueled his nomination, is entirely germane to the subject, but unsolicited editorializing about the tens of millions of his supporters – “simplistic enough to trick scared people” – is not.

    A long-time reader and fan,

  • Williec

    As a Seattle fan now living in Portland, I’ve not liked Kaepernick until now. I appreciate that he’s protesting from within a culture that craves uniformity. I’m humbled by the fact he’s putting his reputation on the line for something as important as this. It’s not “Ali-esque” but it gets our attention. I think he’s been quite articulate and not self-important in how he’s talked about .

  • Diamond Mask

    Sorry I’m late to discussion but this is an excellent piece. “Getting Norma Rae without getting out over his skis.” Kudos.

    I support the Krap on this despite some really bad feelings based on old games and a competitive spirit :) This is what America is about and it’s going to take bigger names and a broader dissension to make change. So I applaud his action and hope he doesn’t take too much flak over it.

    One more thing: The national anthem being played at all sporting events is stupid. There is a time and a place. We should move on from a habit started in WWII.

  • cusanus1

    The problem lies in that two different sets of symbols are being deployed here, and no one is translating, although AT makes a good stab at it. CK sees himself as Rosa Parks, but the fans see him as Roseanne.

    Sport is our religion, and Kaepernik has committed sacrilege. There are a lot of people who wouldn’t be seen dead in church, but they get their Spanish Inquisition on when it comes to sport and its rituals.

    There is nothing inherent to the game that requires the singing of the national anthem, but we do it in the same way that we sing hymns in church. And we feel the need to do that because in a deeply secularized consumer society where nothing is sacred Sport has become a kind of ersatz religion where many Americans find sacred meanings that are not available to them elsewhere.

    The argument that CK is dishonoring the sacrifice of those who died defending the country is a way for those making the accusation to articulate their offense at his sacrilege by symbolic analogy. Dishonoring soldiers who died while deployed probably never entered CK’s mind, and that’s why he didn’t make the statement that AT suggests he should have. But our sports teams are like the military in that they fight for the city’s honor against other city states.

    But the symbolic, ritual, religious aspect of sport is something that is completely out of alignment with the business utilitarian side of it. We forget that really it’s just an entertainment, it’s bread and circuses. But because we forget that and we invest so much displaced meaning into it, we get upset with our sports heros/soldiers when they act like mercenaries who sell out to fight for the enemy. They are not playing their ritual role. CK is in a similar way not playing his ritual role, and as AT points out, he is paying for it by being figuratively burned at the stake.