No Longer Sitting Alone: Why White Players Should Sit With Colin Kaepernick

By Miles Johnson

On Thursday night, the 49ers quarterback was joined in protest by teammate Eric Reid, and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane. Consequently, they pivoted the conversation from Kaepernick’s lone direction, to one that rightly involves the broader population of Black football players. Comments made by players like Victor Cruz, Tiki Barber, and Jerry Rice seemingly indicated, at least among current and former Black players willing to speak out, the flag deserved unwavering reverence. Lane and Reid created a trend, and in doing so, alleviated the burden from every other Black NFL employee of being public enemy #2.

On Thursday morning’s episode of WPFW’s “The Collision,” former NBA player Etan Thomas and The Nation’s Dave Zirin spoke with Craig Hodges to discuss Kaepernick’s protest. Hodges, a former guard for the Bulls, was incredibly outspoken, though perhaps not as widely recognized. On Chicago’s trip to the White House following their 1992 NBA Finals victory, Hodges, in a dashiki, presented President George H.W. Bush with a letter detailing the concerns of the Black community and what he felt were institutional mechanisms of discrimination. (He also called out “His Airness” for being silent on the rash of murders over his expensive sneakers.)

So when Thomas asked Hodges if he was surprised more players had not yet supported Kaepernick (before Lane’s and Reid’s acts later that evening), his response, though not surprising, was disheartening:

“I’mma put it like this: we’re cowards,” Hodges said. “It’s a joke to me, and a joke because the same brothers in the locker room, feeling the same things Colin Kaepernick is feeling, and they ain’t gonna get up and have his back. I know what that’s like.”

It’s great when players to use their celebrity to speak against social injustice. Everyone from Jackie Robinson to Venus Williams capitalized upon the harsh reality that if you were Black, there was no separating sports from politics. The gates of sports arenas were nothing more than porous membranes that failed to insulate Black athletes from anti-Blackness. For their courage and willingness to speak for those whose voices would be transformational if anyone cared to listen, these players should be commended. 

But the charge of cowardice should not be indiscriminately slung at players unable to speak up. Reigning league MVP Cam Newton recently came under fire for his astonishingly neutral stance on Kaepernick’s anthem boycott: that underneath our skin, “we’re all the same color.” 

Unnecessary color blindness notwithstanding, it is worth appreciating that for roughly two months every season, Newton plays in front of a largely white crowd in the heart of North Carolina. Kaepernick’s silent, peaceful protest has proven that no matter how silent, criticisms of America beget visceral reactions from white people.

That Black people should be the most adept and available to end an oppression we did not create is another permutation of conventional anti-Blackness. Hodges did ask for NFL owners’ support, but that is both extremely unrealistic and relieves another stake-holding chunk of the NFL from the cross it should rightfully bear. 

So, with the hopes that he will see this and take it seriously: Tom Brady should boycott the national anthem during next week’s season opener.

White football players (like all white people) have a vested interest in the liberation of Black people—both because of transcendental benefit of living in a world devoid of systems of oppression, and because 68% of the NFL is made up of Black players. Brady needs someone to throw to, right?

But relying on those with relative privilege to appeal to a sense of morality is rarely a sound strategy. Luckily, being critical of America while white is edgy, not threatening. Were Brady, someone who openly displayed Donald Trump paraphernalia in his locker, to show support for Kaepernick, we would crown him a maverick—someone so American that his very challenging of America was the most American thing about him. Some have extrapolated to Trump’s constant griping about America, noting the apparent hypocrisy in his being lauded for what Kaepernick has been derided. 

But sadly, the truth exceeds hypocrisy. The American flag, symbolically, is fundamentally different for Black and white Americans. That flag, on its inaugural flight, was hoisted high enough to see the bombs bursting in air, but not so high that it was unable to overlook the cotton fields fertilized with the bones and hair of slaves. It is no accident that patriotism exuded by Black people is a push toward America’s promises, while the patriotism of the American mainstream is a push in the opposite direction. 

White players have the opportunity to make seismic change throughout the league. For high-profile players or even entire teams to boycott the anthem would signal that not only do Black lives matter, but they matter more than the symbol of a point in time at which the very idea of Black lives having significance was completely alien. And to continue to salute a flag that has so negatively impacted your peers that some invited scorn by boycotting would be to assert that, to you, Black lives do not matter, certainly not more than the star-spangled banner, still caked with bits of dried blood.