The conversation is more important than the controversy

Olivia Zimmerman, Senior Editor-in-Chief

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Nike recently unveiled Colin Kaepernick, the former San Fransisco 49ers quarterback, as the new face of their brand with their “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” campaign slogan.  The announcement sparked a wave of outrage, prompting many to cut the Nike logos off clothes and burn their shoes.

Nike’s business has not suffered in the weeks following the decision. Although their stocks dropped the day following the debut of their new campaign, they have since experienced a surge in market value.

Kaepernick first ignited controversy when he sat on the sidelines during the national anthem in order to protest police violence against people of color. Nate Boyer, himself a veteran Green Beret, expressed concern that the act of sitting separately would be disrespectful.  Boyer suggested kneeling as an alternative, more respectful form of protest. This peaceful protest has prompted other players to do the same, despite the fact that Kaepernick is currently no longer on any NFL team.

Kaepernick has been accused of disrespecting the flag and veterans. People contend that the flag represents brave patriots who have given their lives to this country. Thus, when Colin Kaepernick kneels, he diminishes and dishonors their sacrifice. From this perspective, he is a selfish, rich, athlete who earns millions of dollars in the country he is disrespecting.

Sean Clancy/Twitter
A pair of Nike shoes burned in protest of Nike’s Kaepernick ad campaign.

However, the flag does not exclusively represent the armed forces. It represents all of us, regardless of our military status.  We do not only fly the flag on military bases; we fly it at schools, airports, stores, our homes. We fly it on public properties, as well as private properties because it represents the American people.  This includes people of color who have been subject to discrimination since the dawn of this country and who still endure persecution today.

Kaepernick does not kneel because he opposes or hates the military or our country.  He has worked to make it clear that he kneels to protest the violence and brutality that many black Americans suffer, specifically at the hands of police. His cries echo those who crossed the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, protesting unfair voting restrictions. His “kneel-in” reminds us of those who held sit-ins at Woolworth lunch counters. Protestors were physically attacked, verbally insulted, and told to be silent.

But protests are supposed to make us feel uncomfortable; they are meant to make us question things that we take for granted. Their purpose is to make us ask hard questions; about society, about the government, and about ourselves.

This controversy about disrespecting veterans has become a way to ignore or avoid a discussion about oppression and institutional racism in our country. We are a nation that practices felon disenfranchisement, red-lining, and de-facto school segregation. Something is wrong when police officers who shoot unarmed black Americans consistently walk free.

The Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal,” but our country does not always live up to this ideal. This is the reason Kaepernick knelt.

Colin Kaepernick is not the first athlete to protest and he will not be the last. We, as a society, must be willing to confront racial inequality and understand the role that privilege plays. We must be aware of racial biases, even if that means feeling uncomfortable. We must take action against unjust systems. Simply ignoring problems or hoping someone else will fix them won’t satisfy. We must be proactive. Then, only then, will we change this country for the better.

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