Famously, at the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr spoke of “the fierce urgency of now” regarding the need for immediate, “vigorous and positive action” on civil rights. That it took from 1619 to 1963 for that message to be heard tells its own story.
Immediacy is an important driver in any endeavor, as racers we know that. But immediacy must first be buttressed by thoughtful preparation, as well as constancy over time, as Nietzsche reminded us when he said, “for anything great to happen, there must be a long obedience in the same direction.”
National Football League TV ratings were down 12% in 2016, and early evidence indicates that trend continuing in 2017. While many factors may have contributed to that decline, results from a poll taken last year by Seton Hall University suggests the national anthem protest led by then-San Francisco 49’er quarterback Colin Kaepernick was a leading cause. 56% of responders said Kaepernick’s take-a-knee protest against police shootings of black men was the key element in the NFL ratings drop.
That protest, and the backlash against it, both picked up converts this past weekend after President Donald Trump referred to the protesting players as sons-of-bitches in a campaign speech in last Friday in Alabama (22 September), and called on team owners to fire any player who protested during the anthem.
As one might expect, the president’s intemperate vitriol only served as an accelerant to an already dangerous fire of opposing viewpoints.
There are many Americans who view the NFL players’ national anthem protest as a sign of disrespect to the American flag, the sanctity of which they take very seriously. And while they might acknowledge Kaepernick’s right to protest, they disagreed with his place and method.
But they might ask themselves, where, exactly, would they suggest somebody protest other than at the most visible place possible? Why do they think American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos waited till the Olympic medal podium in Mexico City 1968 to raise their black-gloved protest? What, better to do it in the holding room under the stadium before coming out?
Why protest in the most visible place? Maybe because the plight of black Americans back home failed to comport with the ideals upon which the country was ostensibly founded, and the Stars and Stripes was the most visible symbol of that yet to be achieved ideal?
Perhaps grabbing maximum eyeballs was why the U.S. Defense Department silently spent $5.4 million in taxpayer money in 14 NFL cities between 2011 and 2014 to fund flag-waving, fly-over displays of nationalism that have become synonymous with the NFL. And here I thought patriotism was something that came over you, instead of something you bought. Like when Francis Scott Key was so moved seeing Fort McHenry survive a British naval bombardment during the War of 1812 that he wrote the Star–Spangled Banner.
In some circles, Kaepernick’s protest has had the opposite effect of its intention, sparking discussions on the players’ right to protest and the definition of patriotism, rather than shining a spotlight on the issue of police violence against African-Americans.
Yes, there are many contributing factors to any such contentious an issue. But the one particular element that America can never seem to get beyond is the African-American experience itself.
No other population, no matter what deprivation they may have suffered, springs from the same fetid field as slavery. No other population has been so permanently disadvantaged by the very nature of its past station and presenting appearance.
And since no other Americans can walk in the black man’s shoes, or drive down an American street with the same fear of indiscriminate violence, so does the discussion inevitably turn elsewhere.
National pastimes are based on mutual understandings and shared experiences. But as the makeup of the nation continues to change, even within our own borders we have become increasingly fragmented. Instead of a single people we are many, many individuals. We still have the E Pluribus, but are quickly losing the Unum.
Like track and field events that don’t amount to a unified track meet, but are merely individual events that share the same venue, so are we becoming a myriad of people increasingly sharing a land, but fewer and fewer of its common values or past national assumptions.
One such assumption is that the United States is a nation of immigrants. But in order for immigrants to become full fledged Americans rather than just people who live in America, immigration must be followed by absorption and integration as the fabled melting pot simmers.
But even after 400 years, the African-American still carries a hyphen. And what is hip-hop culture but a separate cultural expression that offers an alternative to the larger, unwelcoming culture surrounding it.
Just as medical and legal terminology restricts information to the specific group, so, too, has the African-American culture created its own cultural norms. And how to blame them? 400 years, and still no true integration? How long?
It is only the universal understanding that America is self-defined as “an experiment in self-rule”, a nation in search of Lincoln’s “more perfect union” that gives us the impetus and drive to constantly try, try, and try again to live up to what we want to believe we really can be.
Protesting doesn’t play against that American ideal, it is the fullest expression of it. Protest, after all, was the animating expression that formed this nation out of a group of British colonies. So if Colin Kaepernick is a son-of-a-bitch now, then so were our Founding Fathers back then.