Kaep-tain America: Athletes, Protest, Race, and State Violence

Unless you’ve been living in seclusion for the last year, you have heard the name Colin Kaepernick, probably paired with an image of him with a neatly groomed Afro kneeling during the national anthem. As I wondered what to write, I wrote (and re-wrote) this dozens of times, never quite satisfied with how it arrived. I have this vision of writing something that not only gives perspective to Kaepernick’s actions in showing how American they really are, but also demonstrates how Athletes in protest are not only a well-trodden path but a distinctly effective strategy when other voices appear to encounter insurmountable resistance.

The Conversation: Brutality to Veterans

Kaepernick first protested in August of 2016. The resulting year-long discussion has been so tinged with Jim Crowe-sque racial rhetoric and conversational coding that feels almost like plantation moralizing of chattel slavery, that it is worth having a discussion about the conversation itself.

The point has been obscured by claims of disrespect of veterans (in a country where 23% of the homeless population is veterans and their average time to receive care can be 3-8 weeks). This has become one of the many evolving deflections from the actual discussion Kaepernick sought to spark with his protest. Police Brutality and racial oppression was the focus of his protest; the response was so predictable—(if you know what to look for) you could set your watch to it.

Fact from Fiction

First, people sought to dispel the “myth of police brutality” and showing the virtues of the police. This movement was already afoot following the outbreak of rage exhibited in Baltimore with Black Lives Matter receiving the blame/credit for that event. The discussion revolves around the number of white people killed by the police in the previous year. Now, if you’re savvy, you’ll notice that percentages are almost always applied to the black community, with it only being 12% of the population; rarely can someone sensationalize something black folks are doing without using a statement like “even though black Americans make up 12% of the population (Insert negative statistic in percentages)” because the numbers (in comparison) are still quite small. When you see real numbers represented, you’re having a newer discussion than you know.

What I want to do is not refute the notion that more white people have been killed by police, but rather to show that the concern about police brutality and misconduct is not a misguided one. In 2016, Thomas Tillis, while speaking at a press conference in support of the “Back the Blue Act,” stated that 2016 was “one of the deadliest years for law enforcement officers.” This was not true by a longshot; 2016 still falls into the category of one of the safest years since 1962. In 2015, the payouts for police misconduct in just 10 American cities came to the total of $248.7 million; the more startling news is that that amount was a 48% increase from 2010 during what the FBI declared the “one of the safest years to be a police officer” in recorded history. However, discussing this trend is seen as taboo, primarily due to the perception of disrespect to law enforcement officers and the difficulty of their work. What it really does is eliminate ready access to evidence that may raise questions about police practice.

Athletes and Protest

Colin Kaepernick is not the first athlete to protest during the national anthem or protest a strongly held American tradition; he is actually one in a long line of people who have drawn a moral line in the sand and paid the consequences. What is likely one of the most iconic photos of athletes in protest is Tommie Smith and John Carlos when they protested during the national anthem at the 1968 Olympics, fists raised into the evening sky. At the 1972 Olympics, Wayne Collet and Vince Matthews stood in cavalier poses while the anthem played—in the background, puzzled officials there to ensure that they don’t raise their fists. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, an NBA player with the Denver Nuggets, was suspended after refusing to stand for the national anthem. In April 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted in the United States Army to fight in the Vietnam war. His refusal to do so led to being stripped of his title and banned from boxing for three years; he was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000 (he avoided prison after winning an appeal).

One of the most overlooked, most organized protests was done by the Women of the WNBA and team owners. Although they have been the best sustained, clearest, and most unified, they have fallen by the wayside in this entire discussion. The Minnesota Lynx, in particular, took a dramatic step in support of Black Lives Matter and in recognition of Philando Castile. At this point, it’s important to acknowledge that it has often fallen to women (and in particular black women) to be the moral compass of our society when men have failed to do so.

In the case of the protests, men (as a collective) have failed to have a sustained consistent movement without being distracted, while the women, including the WNBA, have shown both consistency and selflessness in their approach. For example, when Trump made his comments in Alabama, stating that protesting NFL players should be fired, there was a noticeable uptick in player participation in protest, but the varied approaches and sudden bandwagoning created a distraction from the message because of the reactionary nature, while the women’s movements have been consistent in message, scope, and participation. Up until Trump’s comments, only a handful of players were actively involved in any form of protest; immediately following over 100 hundred players (and owners—most of whom donated to Trump’s campaign) got involved in “solidarity” protests, effectively allowing the Trump statements to successfully shift the discussion to something more shallow and ethereal.

So, Why Does the Title Reference Colin Kaepernick?  

Given the last sentence of the previous paragraph, the question is: why is this called Kaep-tain America and not an article on the Lynx? Primarily, it is because the national conversation centers on Kaepernick’s statements and societal response. It is less about hero worship and reifying what Kaepernick has done (which is why I have avoided centering the story on him), but his actions are (frankly) among the most American thing a citizen can do and the resulting discussion has provided proof of the soul of our society.

America and Protest

The Boston Tea Party was a protest by the Sons of Liberty (dressed as Native Americans) in 1773 in which they destroyed an entire shipment of tea sent by the East India Company in a demonstration against the Tea Act, which went into effect May 10, 1773. This protest, though entirely destructive to property, is regarded as an important moment in American history and has been so idealized that we saw the arrival of the new Tea Party following the election of Barack Obama. The disconnect between the celebration of the Boston Tea Party (which is softened language used to describe what was essentially a riot) and the derision of the recent events in Baltimore—a demonstration that also resulted in the destruction of property in the state with the highest instances of Police Misconduct in the country—, reeks of hypocrisy. We know that protest, yes even violent protest, is an American tradition and how America was born.

The Revolutionary War is undoubtedly an example of bloody protest, a revolt from English rule and taking up weapons to win their freedom. Without that revolutionary war, there is no “free” American society. We are a nation born of blood, death, destruction, and gunpowder, yet (while we idealize that history) see no place for displays of dissent in our modern context. The reason Colin Kaepernick is Kaep-tain America is because of his dissention; he disagrees with the overreach of government in the form of police and is willing to dissent to earn what he wants “freedom from oppression of black and brown people” at the hands of police. If there is one thing that should be celebrated it is that Colin Kaepernick (and many like him) has chosen to follow the most time-honored tradition in our young society; Kaepernick was willing to risk his own livelihood (and his own life) in an act of dissent to move America toward its stated ideals. Protest is the most American thing a person can do.


Doran, Will. “Was 2016 ‘One of the Deadliest Years Ever’ for Police Officers in the US?” PolitiFact North Carolina. May 23, 2017. Retrieved from http://www.politifact.com/north-carolina/statements/2017/may/23/thom-tillis/was-2016-one-deadliest-years-ever-police-officers-/

Ferner, Matt. “FBI Confirms 2015 Was One of the Safest Years Ever for Cops.” HuffPost Politics. May 17, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/fbi-police-deaths_us_573b53aae4b0646cbeeb02b8

Johnk, Zach. “National Anthem Protests by Black Athletes Have a Long History.” New York Times. Sept. 25, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/25/sports/national-anthem-protests-black-athletes.html

Schlager, Brandon. “Minneapolis Cops Take Exception to Lynx Warmup T-shirts, Abandon Security Posts.” Sporting News. Jul. 12, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.sportingnews.com/nba/news/philando-castile-alton-sterling-minneapolis-minnesota-lynx-warmup-t-shirts-black-lives-matter/1wbcqe2ouznqj18w1jmbkp2b7h

Tariq, Sara. “The Cost to Resolve Police Misconduct Cases Is Soaring for US Cities.” Business Insider. Jul. 16, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/the-cost-to-resolve-police-misconduct-cases-is-soaring-for-us-cities-2015-7



About the Author

Jonathan Brown is a father, husband, coach, educator, academic, and loves to think about all things social. He is best known for writing things about the intersection of race and history and has a distinct interest in the social construction of reality. He is a lover of sports, afternoon naps, and savory foods.