CHULAK: Social progress starts with consciousness

Opinions Column: The Hard Truth

It is week seven of the NFL season and Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who has thrown over 12,000 yards, made 72 touchdowns and even had a Super Bowl appearance, still finds himself without a team. To many, it is clear that this is no longer a football issue. Kaepernick is more than capable of leading an NFL team and is coming off a statistically solid season. Despite the San Francisco 49ers’ abysmal 2-14 record during the 2016 season, Kaepernick had a productive season, throwing for 2,241 yards with 16 touchdowns and just four interceptions in just 12 games. Add that to an additional 468 yards rushing and two rushing touchdowns, it is clear that Kaepernick has the talent to be on an NFL roster. It is hard to argue that teams like the Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins or New York Jets, who have all had issues at the quarterback position, would not have benefitted from Kaepernick’s skill set — not to mention the dozens of teams that are in desperate need of a reliable backup quarterback. Kaepernick has recently moved to sue the league, accusing the owners of colluding to keep him out of a job. If you are still under the assumption that Kaepernick’s unemployment is just a football decision, you are not only misjudging the situation but completely ignoring its political and cultural implications.

By now, most are aware of what brought national attention to Colin Kaepernick. It started during the 2016 preseason when Kaepernick was spotted sitting on the bench alone during the National Anthem. The next game he took a knee during the anthem and continued this practice throughout the 2016 NFL season in order to protest social injustice and police brutality. Although many labeled his peaceful protest as a sign of disrespect toward the flag, the military and the country, Kaepernick is well within his First Amendment rights and brought attention to a significant issue in America today. The protest was never about the flag or the military — it is about our unwillingness to confront and address the institutional racism and oppression that has been fostered in America throughout its history. Far too many of us forget that just over 50 years ago, America was a segregated society rife with overt racism and hostility towards minorities. Although we have made significant strides since then, these sentiments have not been eradicated. Instead of initiating violent protests, Kaepernick decided to peacefully take a knee to bring attention to the racial inequalities in America but was quickly labeled as an unpatriotic firebrand.

The NFL has always been a force acting to discourage players from expressing themselves, politically or not, while shrouding their games in patriotism. The issue of taking a knee during the national anthem is an act protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that the free speech clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protected students from being forced to salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

Kaepernick’s protest is obviously going to be a contentious issue as people tend to associate the national anthem with the military, but Kaepernick never meant to disrespect our service men and women. All Americans, including myself, have an immense gratitude for everything they have done. American soldiers have fought for hundreds of years to protect our freedoms and liberties. The national anthem means something different to all Americans, but it is not meant to honor just the military. It honors all American citizens and the ideals that the military is fighting to uphold: freedom, liberty and democracy. If we want to honor the military, let us stop sending them out to unnecessary foreign wars and provide benefits to veterans when they return. They have made the ultimate sacrifice and they deserve more than an empty gesture before a football game.

The whole situation was exacerbated when President Donald J. Trump openly condemned Kaepernick’s decision and encouraged NFL owners to fire players who refused to stand for the anthem. Whether this was legal and within his authority is another topic of discussion, but the president’s comments led to widespread protests across the league as owners and players alike took a knee to show unity and solidarity. There is no question that Kaepernick’s actions have brought attention to himself, the NFL and the owners, but what is still lacking from the conversation is the very reason he took a knee in the first place. We still have not had a discussion on racial injustice in 2017, and we still have not had a discussion on police brutality. Like many revolutionaries before him, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali, Kaepernick has been condemned and discouraged, but hindsight is 20-20, and those revolutionaries are now viewed as leaders and historical figureheads. They tirelessly fought for equality and justice, because they recognized that those are the principles that the United States was founded upon. Kaepernick is a true patriot, because his love of country and humanity compelled him to bring attention to an issue that has been ignored for far too long. Social progress has never been easy and is almost always met with opposition, but let us all take steps to become more conscious of these issues. That starts with empathizing with those who are being oppressed while also recognizing the privilege that many of us have been granted.

Daniel Chulak is a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences junior majoring in environmental and business economics with a minor in German. His column, "The Hard Truth," runs on alternate Thursdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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