Because he’s an NFL player, Kaepernick’s statement resonates in a distinct way. America’s most popular sports league is also its most visibly patriotic, a trait discernible in everything from pregame fighter-jet flyovers to field-sized flags to coaches’ instructions about the anthem during behind-the-scenes shows. It doesn’t require an extreme amount of cynicism or research to note that this is as much about industry acumen as love of country—the league has a brand, and the stars and stripes are a part of it—but like all branding, it works best when it is assumed as a matter of course. With his means of protest, then, Kaepernick is not only using his platform as an athlete to raise awareness about ongoing tragedies. He’s also, whether by design or not, questioning the NFL’s insistent but narrow definition of patriotism, shining a harsh light on its red-white-and-blue wallpaper.
When asked about Kaepernick’s actions, his ex-teammate and now-Minnesota Viking Alex Boone, whose brother served as a Marine, spoke passionately. “That flag obviously gives him the right to do whatever he wants. I understand it. At the same time, you should have some fucking respect for people who served, especially people that lost their life to protect our freedom.”
The response rests on certain assumptions. The anthem is, in Boone’s presentation, a means of honoring America’s military—not the country’s ideological foundation or its cultural or political history—and so Kaepernick is offending the military. Contrast this understanding with, say, that of the national anthems played for the victors at the Olympics. American medalists tend to report on the experience of hearing the anthem played as a prideful and reminiscent one that brings up visions of parents, hometowns, and training partners and coaches along the way. It is celebratory, not supplicant, patriotism. Even when the gymnast Gabby Douglas found herself in an overblown controversy concerning her posture during an anthem in the Rio Olympics—no hand over her heart—the troops were rarely invoked. Her offense was thought to be a broader lack of appreciation, not a specific affront to soldiers.
Boone’s criticism of Kaepernick surely stemmed in part from his brother’s time serving, but it also reflected his league’s conception of national pride. The armed forces figure heavily in the NFL’s weekly presentations. The flyovers are joined by salutes to servicemen and women in the crowd, reunions between returning soldiers and their families, televised cutaways to units stationed overseas enjoying satellite feeds of the games, and recruitment ads during commercial breaks.
On the one hand, this partnership seems natural. Football is America’s most militaristic sport, a game of armored land acquisition whose participants are drilled to suppress their own fear and carry out strategy. Players get hurt with astonishing frequency. Coaches command from the safety of the sidelines. It’s all as close as adults come to playing war, so it fits that the game should revere those who do the real thing.