Joe Camporeale / USA Today Sports

Colin Kaepernick won’t stand for the national anthem because of what he sees as systemic racism in American society. But in the days that followed the San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s protest, the national debate hasn’t been about his motivation for sitting, but the method of sitting.

Critics have called his actions unpatriotic and disrespectful. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has even chimed in, saying Kaepernick “should find a country that works better for him.”

The wide array of criticism not only comes from political figures (Hillary Clinton hasn’t addressed the incident, while White House officials called his perspective “objectionable”), he’s also facing pushback from his own colleagues in the NFL.

Players have been widely quoted as saying they disagree with what they say is disrespect toward the American flag. Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints quarterback, said Kaepernick “can speak out about a very important issue,” but it shouldn’t “involve being disrespectful to the American flag.” He told ESPN on Monday:

Like, it’s an oxymoron that you’re sitting down, disrespecting that flag that has given you the freedom to speak out.

Even former 49ers great Jerry Rice took exception to Kaepernick’s protest:

There’s something about invoking the image of the American flag that fires people up. The strong reactions speak a lot to the culture of the NFL itself. As Robert O’Connell noted Tuesday in an Atlantic article, Kaepernick’s protest questions “the NFL’s narrow definition of patriotism,” usually illustrated in weekly presentations of flyovers and salutes to troops.

But it was Kaepernick’s former coach who framed the entire debate. Jim Harbaugh, who now coaches the University of Michigan football team, said, “I support Colin’s motivation. It’s his method of action that I take exception to.”

Reaction isn’t about his motivation. It’s about his method. Kaepernick’s motivation was lost.

Take the White House’s reaction: spokesman Josh Earnest did say Kaepernick “certainly is entitled to express” his viewpoints, but Earnest failed to even address criminal justice reform, an issue President Obama has extensively spoken and Kaepernick’s main reason for sitting.

Players who defended Kaepernick, like Miami Dolphins running back Arian Foster, were forced to focus on his right to protest.

Even the official NFL reaction surrounded the method of his protest: “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the National Anthem.” The statement reads more like an employee handbook than anything else.

After Carmelo Anthony spoke out against shootings, both against and by police, the NBA took a wholly different approach. Adam Silver, the league’s commissioner, praised the New York Knicks star for taking a public stand on an important social issue, saying he is “absolutely in favor” of it. He told reporters:

I’m not one to say they have an obligation to do it, but I think those who feel comfortable doing it and want to speak out, they have this incredible forum to do it, whether it’s in a formal way through media members who are in this room or whether it’s through social media. I actually think it demonstrates that these are multidimensional people. They live in this society, and they have strong views about how things should be. So I’m very encouraging of that.

To be sure, the NBA expressly prohibits its players from sitting during the national anthem, and athletes have generally followed that rule. The most notable exception happened in 1996 when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a Muslim who played for the Denver Nuggets, refused to stand for the national anthem, saying it was against his beliefs. The NBA suspended him for one game that March. The league eventually worked out a deal with Abdul-Rauf, where he would stand for the national anthem but could look down and recite a prayer.

If Anthony’s protest involved the national anthem or the flag, reaction to his protest may have been different. What if Jackie Robinson had sat during the national anthem during the 1947 World Series, as the baseball great wished he had 25 years later, knowing “that I am a black man in a white world?”

But if the discussion, for the most part, centers on whether sitting for the national anthem is an appropriate means of protest, did Kaepernick fail? He sat because of what he perceives is racial injustice and police brutality in the United States. That’s not what his colleagues or politicians or even the media are talking about four days after the incident.

Or did others fail in this debate? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA legend and activist, wrote in The Washington Post:

What should horrify Americans is not Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated during the national anthem, but that nearly 50 years after [Muhammad] Ali was banned from boxing for his stance and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.

Kaepernick sat for the national anthem to spark a debate on racial injustice, but he sparked a debate about how we should protest in this country.

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