The national anthem is becoming a partisan issue and potentially a problem for one of America’s most popular and unifying institutions: the National Football League.
In the nearly two weeks since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began refusing to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the start of games, other athletes have done the same, police unions have threatened the team, and the gesture has drawn criticism from other players, involved both presidential tickets and even dogged President Obama on a foreign trip.
Meanwhile, the NFL can look forward to a season of controversy as more of its players are expected to kneel, sit or otherwise violate social etiquette at the start of the nation’s most popular televised spectacle.
At a press conference Monday in Hangzhou, China, Mr. Obama defended Kaepernick’s protest, saying he has a constitutional right not to show respect for “The Star-Spangled Banner” and adding that the protest has achieved political good.
At no point did Mr. Obama say, as several NFL stars and coaches have, that refusing to honor America’s national symbols is a poor or counterproductive way to draw attention to social issues.
“My understanding is he’s exercising his constitutional right to make a statement,” Mr. Obama said at a press conference in Hangzhou, in his first public comments on the athlete’s protest. “I don’t doubt his sincerity. I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about.”
Kaepernick, a backup quarterback, says he sits or kneels on the sidelines during the playing of the anthem because the U.S. oppresses minorities. He also has worn practice socks that depict police as pigs, though he has said the pigs on the socks represent only “rogue” officers. Law enforcement has criticized the president for siding with police critics, including the Black Lives Matter movement.
Mr. Obama said of Kaepernick, “If nothing else, what he’s done has generated more consideration about some topics that need to be talked about.
“I’d rather have young people who are engaged in the argument and trying to think through how they can be part of our democratic process than people who are just sitting on the sidelines and not paying attention at all,” the president said. “My suspicion is over time he’s going to refine how he’s thinking about it. That’s how we move forward. Sometimes it’s messy, but it’s the way democracy works.”
Law enforcement hasn’t been amused. The San Francisco Police Officers Association issued a statement condemning Kaepernick’s comments and socks as showing “a naivety and total lack of sensitivity toward police officers. Ironically, it is those officers who on numerous occasions have protected Mr. Kaepernick.”
The union of the police officers who take the lead in protecting the 49ers stadium — Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara — said many will no longer volunteer to do so.
Santa Clara Police Officers Association members sent a letter telling the 49ers that if the team does not act against Kaepernick, and it has said it will not, “it could result in police officers choosing not to work at your facilities.”
The president acknowledged that many troops and veterans are offended by the protest or are having a tough time working through their psychological reflexes.
“There are not a lot of ways you can do it as a general matter when it comes to the flag and the national anthem, and the meaning that holds for our men and women in uniform and those who fought for us,” Mr. Obama said. “That is a tough thing for them to get past, to then hear what his deeper concerns are.”
But the closest he came Monday in China to saying he disagreed with anything Kaepernick had said or done was that he hoped the football player would refine his thoughts while people who are offended by his disrespect would come to agree that Kaepernick has legitimate concerns.
“My suspicion is, is that over time he’s going to refine how he’s thinking about it, and maybe some of his critics will start seeing that he has a point around certain concerns about justice and equality,” he said.
Sen. Tim Kaine, the running mate of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, similarly defended the NFL player’s rights, telling ABC’s “This Week” program that “you’ve got to respect people’s ability to act according to their conscience” but added that the chosen means may not help.
“I’d do it differently,” Mr. Kaine said. “I think if you really thought about issues and about this country, you’d do it differently, and when I heard him explain his rationale, it didn’t really make that much sense to me.”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was blunter, blasting the pregame protest as a “terrible thing” on a Seattle talk radio show.
“I have followed it, and I think it’s personally not a good thing,” Mr. Trump said. “Maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try. It won’t happen.”
By now, it’s not just Kaepernick. Two others also refused to stand for last week’s games, the final round of the preseason.
Niners safety Eric Reid also knelt during the anthem in Thursday night’s game against the San Diego Chargers, who had just finished holding Military Night ceremonies at Qualcomm Stadium. Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane sat on the bench during the anthem before his team’s game in Oakland against the Raiders.
According to several 49ers beat reporters at the Chargers game, other players hugged Kaepernick in support afterward, as did free-agent long snapper Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret who had penned a letter to the quarterback and had been invited to the sideline.
Kaepernick said after the game, the second at which he refused to honor the U.S. flag and anthem, that he would continue his protest through the regular season and that “numbers” of players would join him.
“I think there are a lot of conversations happening not only in NFL locker rooms but around the country,” he said. “I’ve also had friends that aren’t on football teams say, ‘You know, I respect what you’re doing, I support you.’”
Lane said after his team’s game that he will continue to sit during “The Star-Spangled Banner” “until I feel like justice is being served.”
The season kicks off Thursday night in Denver with the Broncos taking on the Carolina Panthers. The 49ers don’t play until the last game of the first week, when they host the Los Angeles Rams as the back half of a Monday night double-header.
Not all players are on board, which could foreshadow a fall of political division having nothing to do with the quadrennial election.
Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said that while “there is some depth and some truth to what he was doing, I think he could have picked a better platform and a better way to do it.”
Former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees were more blunt.
“I disagree. I wholeheartedly disagree. Not that he wants to speak out about a very important issue. No, he can speak out about a very important issue. But there’s plenty of other ways that you can do that in a peaceful manner that doesn’t involve being disrespectful to the American flag,” Brees said.
“I acknowledge his right to do that. I don’t respect the action,” said Mr. Harbaugh, now the University of Michigan head coach.
Nor is football alone in this matter. On Sunday night, U.S. World Cup soccer player Megan Rapinoe of the Seattle Reign knelt during the anthem before her team’s National Women’s Soccer League game against the Chicago Red Stars in what she called “a little nod” toward Kaepernick.
“Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties,” she said, adding that it was “important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this.”
The NFL brass has tried to duck the controversy, saying Kaepernick violated no rules.
“Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy told reporters last week in an email statement.
But on at least one front, the league is making money off the controversy, in a classic example of any publicity being good publicity.
In the past couple of weeks, Kaepernick’s official jersey has become the biggest seller after having been the 20th most popular purchase on the team’s official merchandise site, a reflection of the quarterback’s declining play.
And Kaepernick jerseys are no longer clearance items, as is typical for out-of-favor players. “Kaepernick jerseys were on clearance at the end of last season, and now they’re back at full-price: $99.99,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, though it noted that “maybe all those people are buying his jersey so they can burn them in a counterprotest. Hard to say.”
• Douglas Ernst and Valerie Richardson contributed to this report.
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