Colin Kaepernick will be returning as starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49’ers this Sunday. His arm, the one that’s earned him the right to take a knee, is going to be in the spotlight again.
It’s an interesting moment. Kaepernick is the activist nobody saw coming, a man who now has a stake in an issue that wasn’t his own. He didn’t get pulled over by the police. He’s not related to Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, or Philando Castile. Why is this his thing? Because he lives in the skin he does. And that makes it complicated for everyone.
In the process, Kaepernick has started a national conversation about national conversations. Who gets to have one? When? And how? You know things have gotten real when you’re publicly sparring with a Supreme Court Justice on how to protest correctly. Ruth Bader Ginsburg told a reporter that she thought his protest was “dumb” and likened it to flag-burning. “At the end of the day, the flag is just a piece of cloth and I am not going to value a piece of cloth over people’s lives,” he said in response. (On Friday afternoon, however, Ginsburg said her comments were “inappropriately dismissive.” )
American football has become an exercise in national pride, a patriotic spectacle that binds us together for a few hours to feel good about watching highly-compensated people working in a multi-billion dollar industry risk permanent injury for our entertainment. See? Complicated.
And yet, it’s also personal. Gathering with friends and family to watch your team play Sunday after Sunday, holiday after holiday is a beautiful thing. Remembering legendary games. Reliving regional rivalries. Me? I’m from New York. Tom Brady could sprout a new kidney once a week and personally stitch it into a needy child, and he would still drive me crazy. But that’s part of the fun.
Except now every time we hear the national anthem, we think about race.
Kaepernick’s version of a national conversation interrupts all of this good feeling and cleaves the audience into opposing teams: The people who watch sports to escape the world, and the ones for whom the world is a dangerous place. The people who believe athletes aren’t paid to think, and the ones who need them to. And the people who don’t want to talk about race, and the ones who don’t have that luxury. He’s now the guy who brings up race in the staff meeting and then gets left off the happy hour email chain.
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Kaepernick’s gambit puts his wealth and personal brand at risk, though he doesn’t seem to care. But when student-athletes take a knee during the national anthem, as they are in increasing numbers across the country, they risk cleaving their own communities in two, without the benefit of fame, fortune or high profile cover on television. For everyone involved, including the kids who stand awkwardly beside their kneeling teammates, the national conversation has become their locker room talk. The degree to which these conversations go well should be the primary benchmark by which we measure Kaepernick’s success.
I’ll leave you with a story from another sport and another era that affects me deeply every time I read it.
In her short but powerful book, On Boxing, Joyce Carol Oates shared a quote from Martin Luther King that perfectly encapsulates the intersection of race, racism, and heroism in a complex world that hasn’t changed as much as we’d like to think:
“Some time ago one of the Southern states adopted a new method of capital punishment. Poison gas supplanted the gallows. In its earliest stages, a microphone was placed inside the sealed death chamber so that scientific observers might hear the words of the dying prisoner…The first victim was a young Negro. As the pellet dropped into the container and gas curled upward, through the microphone came these words: ‘Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis. Save me, Joe Louis…’”
At the very end of his life, the “young Negro” invoked not the name of his mother or Jesus, but a different higher power of his choice. Now, Colin Kaepernick is no Joe Louis. Or Jackie Robinson. Or Bill Russell. But he is the hero we didn’t know anybody wanted. It’s complicated, I know.
Ellen McGirt is a senior editor for Fortune.