History Will Smile on Colin Kaepernick. Wanna Bet?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Here's a wager that I'll win but will never collect: In 2068, Colin Kaepernick will be celebrated for the courage of his convictions while President Donald Trump will be vilified as a bigoted demagogue.
Kaepernick is the former National Football League quarterback who in 2016 knelt during the national anthem before games and inspired other players to join his protest against racial injustice. There was a political backlash, and for the past two years he hasn’t had so much as a tryout with any NFL team. (The Seattle Seahawks offered him one if he’d swear off his anthem protest; he refused.) Trump blasted players with obscenities for joining Kaepernick's protest, charging that they were being disrespectful of the military. Not coincidentally, most of them are African-Americans.
This is relevant today. On Sunday, several NFL players continued to kneel during the anthem. In the final three weeks before the midterm elections, the president will use any issue to incite his loyalists, including appeals to racial prejudice and phony patriotism.
Why 2068? It will be 50 years ago on Tuesday that two U.S. Olympic sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists in a black-power salute during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” as they stood on the victory stand at the Mexico City Olympics. (Smith won the gold medal in the 200-meter dash while Carlos took the bronze.) The year before, boxing great Muhammad Ali had been driven out of his sport and widely condemned for refusing the military draft over objections to the Vietnam War.
The parallels between Kaepernick and those athletes is striking. Smith and Carlos were kicked out of the Olympic village by the United States Olympic Committee, which has become notorious for its corruption. They were chastised at home, received death threats and were unable to capitalize on their athletic success. Ali was denied a boxing license.
In time, all three became symbols of courage. Smith and Carlos were educators, even enlisted by future Olympic committees.
In April, the Newseum in Washington, D.C. awarded First Amendment Freedom of Expression Awards to Smith and Carlos. They were introduced by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who said they had earned a "place in civil rights history" alongside their accomplishments in sports. The outspoken Carlos noted that evening that another award was being given to the New York Times for its revelations about sexual assaults, and pointed out that the Times hadn't been as courageous a half-century earlier in covering the Olympic protests.
Ali returned to boxing, and though robbed of three prime years, reclaimed his greatness in the ring. No athlete was more celebrated around the globe. In 1996, in an extraordinarily moving moment, he stood at the top of a stadium in Atlanta, with hands trembling from Parkinson's Disease, to light the Olympic flame. Nine years later, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush.
Unlike these three, Kaepernick is not an historically great athlete. But he was a good professional quarterback, leading the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2012 and the NFC Championship game a year later, and once passed for more than 400 yards in a game. He wasn’t a regular starter after that, but certainly has more than enough ability to be a backup quarterback.
His protest was best characterized this year by Beto O’Rourke, the Texas Democrat running for the U.S. Senate.
"I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights, anytime, anywhere, or in any place" O'Rourke said at a candidate town hall in August. He was immediately assailed by his Republican opponent, Senator Ted Cruz — a man who embraced Trump even after Trump falsely suggested during the presidential nomination race in 2016 that Cruz's father had links to President John F. Kennedy’s assassin.
Standing for the “Star-Spangled Banner” has nothing to do with supporting the military. Until 2009, NFL players were in the locker room during the pre-game playing of the anthem.
The best rejoinder to Trump's demagoguery came from Carlos in an interview with Sports Illustrated this month.
"He called young black men sons of bitches for kneeling," Carlos said. "He said they weren't respecting the military. What did he ever do in the military? And what did any of his children do in the military?"
Kaepernick is suing the NFL, accusing the league of colluding to keep him off the field. I expect him to win. Anybody want to bet against me?
No? Then how about that bet about his eventual place in history? Oh, how I wish I could be around in 50 years to collect!
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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