Askia MuhammadColumnistsOp-EdOpinion

MUHAMMAD: On Anthems and Athletes

I show solidarity with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Stand strong, young champion.

Kaepernick’s bold refusal to even stand when the “Star Spangled Banner” is played reminds me of the conduct of my schoolmates Tommie Smith and John Carlos — gold and bronze medalists at the 1968 Olympic Games — who raised their clenched, black-gloved fists when the anthem was played.

That protest — which was engineered by San Jose State’s Dr. Harry Edwards, a bygone champion discuss thrower and sociology professor — was initially a proposal for Black athletes to boycott the games entirely. Imagine that, we would never have remembered their names had they stayed home to protest. Instead their action was seared into the history books.

So now, as Smith and Carlos did in 1968, Kaepernick has done something memorable: refusing to stand when the national anthem was played. Olympic champion Gabby Douglas was also criticized for not putting her hand over her heart when the anthem was played

Curious observation: the protest has currency because in the minds of the loyal fans, these athletes who’ve ascended the ladder of success should be demonstrating more gratitude and “patriotism.” After all, if a star athlete acted similarly during another country’s anthem, that behavior would be rightly condemned as simply rude. But to be rude during one’s own anthem is like playing with fire.

“This country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all — and it’s not happening for all right now,” Kaepernick said. Amen.

The problem, then and now, has everything to do with the relationship of black people to the American flag, and with its star-spangled anthem. If blacks had their own flag and anthem it would be easy for them to show respect to the American flag and anthem, at the proper time.

Case in point: Monica Puig is a Puerto Rican athlete and the first gold medalist from that tiny island since 1948, when they first sent athletes. Yes, they are U.S. citizens, but they saw their flag raised, and heard their anthem when Puig’s gold medal for tennis was presented. Puerto Rican athletes have been on the medal stand eight other times, but have never heard their anthem played.

Many professional basketball players played for their home countries in the Olympics. That’s the home pride which is easily blinded for some black athletes by U.S. social conditions.

Alas, there is a chattering class of analysts, commentators and pundits which will have at this for the remainder of Kaepernick’s career. The most gung-ho among them will only forgive him after he utterly and completely capitulates. These flags and these anthems are tricky.

There are some African-American identity flags — the red, black and green Black Nationalist flag designed by the Honorable Marcus Garvey, for one; the Nation of Islam’s red, star and crescent flag from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, for another. But no separate black identity has gained internationally recognized sovereignty, so those flags and anthems are celebrated privately not at massive sporting events.

In the end, it may be difficult for Colin Kaepernick to build an anti-anthem constituency among typical U.S. sports aficionados, after all many of them have already taken to burning their jerseys with his name on them, and those jerseys are not cheap.

I hope he’s got enough money set aside to be able to afford a farm or some other homestead somewhere, where he can comfortably reside for the remainder of his days — which I hope will be plenty.

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Askia Muhammad

WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad is also a poet, and a photojournalist. He is Senior Editor for The Final Call newspaper and he writes a weekly column in The Washington Informer.

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