By Ellen McGirt
August 29, 2016

Colin Kaepernick, the 28-year-old quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, ignited a firestorm on Friday, after he refused to stand for the national anthem at a preseason game with the Green Bay Packers.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said afterward. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Kaepernick, who is mixed race, has joined a growing number of high-profile athletes who are choosing to speak out on the complex issues of race, violence, policing and civil rights in America. Check out Kaepernick’s Instagram feed. He’s not kidding around.

(By the way, it turns out the entire country has been sitting out the third stanza of the national anthem for decades, as it contains some choice – and racist – lyrics about former slaves who chose to fight for their freedom alongside the British during the War of 1812. Who knew?)

But in the modern world, one amplified by social media, it’s increasingly risky and potentially expensive for professional athletes to leverage their platforms to raise awareness, for anything except the most acceptable of causes.

So, it’s worth asking the bigger question. What should we expect from a professional athlete when it comes to race and society?

The Undefeated, the outstanding newish site about the intersection of race, sports and culture, asked that question last week, at an event held at the South Side YMCA in Chicago, and broadcast by ESPN. Called Athletes, Responsibility and Violence, it brought together a diverse group of people who are deeply intertwined with the Chicago community, from famous athletes ― like Dwyane Wade, who appeared via satellite ― to academics, crisis counselors and faith leaders, to share personal stories of violence and systemic neglect, and their prescriptions for change. The panelists were candid and unsparing.

Their big message was one that would resonate with Kaepernick: Silence is violence.

This year, more than 2,600 people have been shot in Chicago, more than 11 per day. And almost everyone who spoke had lost someone to some form of gun violence.

One of the panelists was Jolinda Wade, Dwyane Wade’s mother and a former drug dealer who became a pastor after doing time in jail. She talked about how lack of economic opportunity puts families at risk. “Some parents have to work one, two and three jobs and can’t be there for their kids,” she said. “Reality TV is raising our children today. And they’re going out on the street and being disconnected … They grow up and look around and nothing’s there.”

In a horrific twist, the Wades lost a young relative, Nykea Aldridge, to gun violence the very next day. The details of that story were temporarily overshadowed by the Donald Trump machine, after the candidate tweeted: “Dwayne Wade’s cousin was just shot and killed walking her baby in Chicago. Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!” (He retweeted it again later, fixing his misspelling of Wade’s first name.)

They will not. But Pastor Wade deserves the last word on the tragedy:

“Just sat up on a panel yesterday, The Undefeated, talking about the violence that’s going on within our city of Chicago, never knowing that the next day we would be the ones that would be actually living and experiencing it,” she said to reporters outside the emergency room where Aldridge was pronounced dead. “We’re still going to try and help these people to transform their minds and give them a different direction, so this thing won’t keep happening. We’re still going to help empower people like the one who senselessly shot my niece in the head.”


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