What has happened to the idea that patriotism is about supporting freedom and not restricting it?
The Colin Kaepernick story fits into this question without an answer, and you begin to wonder: What's the point of telling it anymore? Have we tuned it out? His story never changes; it never has a different ending. He's a mixed-race athlete with a conscience and an Afro who knelt during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games to protest police brutality, and somehow has moved Americans instead to reject every principle America is supposed to be about.
And yet, close to home in Sacramento, we have watched the Stephon Clark story unfold, one that, in its essence, is at the core of Kaepernick's public gesture – an unarmed black man shot and killed by police. Kaepernick's story doesn't change, and what he protests, police actions against African Americans, persists.
That may end up being Kaepernick's legacy. He's the former football player – of all people – whose actions inspired anti-democratic reactions from a country that is supposed to know better.
The National Football League is morally corrupt and proves it every day on a variety of issues, including by blackballing Kaepernick, who once came within an eyelash of winning a Super Bowl. Meanwhile, NFL teams have offered jobs to quarterbacks who haven't played the game in years. And all because Kaepernick knelt during "The Star-Spangled Banner" in his last games as an active player with the San Francisco 49ers.
Kaepernick, 30, missed the entire 2017 NFL season because no one offered him a job, despite a revolving door of has-beens or never-weres finding work. Last week, Kaepernick was finally going to workout for the Seattle Seahawks, hoping to land a contract. But the trip was "postponed." Some news outlets reported that the workout was shelved because Kaepernick declined to stop kneeling during the anthem.
"The source said the Seahawks wanted to know that Kaepernick wouldn't kneel this season, and he was unwilling to give that assurance to them," wrote ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Eric Reid, Kaepernick's former 49ers teammate, also can't find work because he joined Kaepernick and took a knee before 49ers games in 2016. According to various news accounts, Reid visited the Cincinnati Bengals and owner Mike Brown questioned him about kneeling during the national anthem.
According to NBC Sports Pro Football Talk, Reid was "caught off guard by the line of questioning."
Since 2000, the Bengals have had 44 players who were arrested, according to NFLArrest.com. The Seahawks have had 29 players accused or arrested of various crimes, including multiple domestic violence incidents, in the same time period.
Many of these players continued to find work, as have many other domestic abusers in the NFL.
But if Reid and Kaepernick refuse to conform, after they are figuratively shoved up against a wall to promise not to take a stand they believe in, then they are out.
True, the First Amendment doesn't always protect us from losing our jobs. In business, caustic social media posts can be grounds for termination. Our rights remain protected, we don't go to jail for them, but we don't have constitutional rights to particular jobs. But a strong argument can and should be made that what is happening to Kaepernick, and Reid, is different.
The inability of these young men to find work anywhere in their industry , and the recent rejections of both, seem to violate rights upheld for generations by Supreme Court rulings. In 1943, in a landmark case, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the court ruled that a local school district could not force schoolkids to pledge allegiance to the flag.
"Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters," the court ruled. "Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard. It seems trite but necessary to say that the First Amendment to our Constitution was designed to avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings."
Hasn't the NFL begun coercive elimination of dissent? Isn't the NFL insisting on compulsory unification of opinion?
It has, but what is worse is the largely white fan base at NFL games has, in most markets, reacted negatively to players. While some media commentators have spoken in support of Kaepernick and other dissident players, many have gone the other way. They have made excuses that Kaepernick isn't playing because he isn't good enough, even as a host of remedial players have gotten jobs ahead of him.
We heard some, but not nearly enough, outcry, over the treatment of Kaepernick and Reid. Where is the public consensus rallying against the litmus test on patriotism being enforced by the NFL?
Instead, Kaepernick has become a symbol to too many "fans" who hate him and everything he stands for. Kaepernick took a stand against police brutality before Clark was killed in Sacramento last month by local police. This issue is real and yet fans and NFL owners scream about how Kaepernick is being disrespectful to veterans.
He is not. The Clark killing proves he has a point. But even more important, he has a right to the point. That point is about what he views as a national crisis, a travesty of police actions against African Americans. The travesty that has ensued is that so many Americans reject that right and the man who stands by it. Even Kaepernick's Twitter timeline is filled with N-word epithets. Sports media personalities back the NFL for blackballing him.
With each passing day, Kaepernick's exile from the NFL begins to resemble Muhammad Ali's forced exile from boxing in the late 1960s. Ali refused induction to armed services, opposed the war in Vietnam and was hated by much of America. Now here we are again, condemning a dark-skinned man because he doesn't conform to our rigid view of patriotism. We seem to have learned nothing from Ali's experience.
Ali's story changed. Kaepernick's story remains the same. It still has the same ending, in which we idolize the flag but condemn the man who inconveniently lives by the principles behind it.