Colin Kaepernick and What it Means to be American

A Colin Kaepernick Timeline

Colin Kaepernick is a professional football player most known for his very public protests of police brutality. Originally, his protests started with him sitting during the national anthem. A former Green-Beret-Turned-NFL-player told him that instead he should kneel as a sign of respect. Kneeling (typically a sign of respect and submission, like in wedding proposals, when people pray to God, or when they meet royalty) during the national anthem has been touted the ultimate sign of disrespect. People like my own family members have called on Kaepernick to leave America if it is so bad and move to a country he can support. Kaepernick has an active case against the NFL that centers around colluding to ruin his career by keeping him away from playing time.

I question the root of his abhorrence to protesting the United States. Is it because Kaep is Black? Is it because he is a public figure, related to the Hollywood elites and therefore shouldn’t have the time or capacity to speak out on something? Is it because of the NFL’s relationship with the military?Analyzing the differences between Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem and Tebow’s kneeling in thanks to God reveals the racial bias in America is tinged with religious foundation.

Football is America’s past time and serves to develop American character. This sport has both religious and racial histories that is often ignored. “Positive moral overtones as cultural heritage becomes equated with the kinds of discipline valued in sport”. US colonialism was disguised as humanitarianism and mission work. The United States attempted to “modernize” and “develop” American Samoa (the state the has the highest rate of producing football players) to fit in with the American polity via Christian mission work that was disguised as humanitarianism. Thus, football is seen as both a political and religious entity neither Kaepernick or Tebow should be given the heat they receive for using their professional platform to disseminate information to the masses. People who say sports aren’t or shouldn’t be political are greatly misinformed.

Kaepernick and Tebow Kneeling

Michael Frost’s The Washington Post article “Colin Kaepernick vs. Tim Tebow: A Tale of Two Christians on their Knees” is the inspiration for this article. His article compares the Christianities of Tim Tebow and Colin Kaepernick. Tebow’s Christianity is much more privatized, focusing on individual acts to promote goodness and a relationship with God. Kaepernick’s Christianity is much more communal, focusing on the social justice elements of Jesus and his teachings. It addresses who plays the role of “Christian” better through physical attributes and acknowledges that when one can be supported by white Christianity, then this person can most definitely be considered American. The physical characteristics are taken into account. Kaepernick is black, has an afro or dreadlocks, tattoos, and a beard. Tebow is white, clean shaven with a buzzcut with no tattoos.

From the liberal perspective, people have no issue with Kaepernick expressing his political beliefs but do find issue with Tebow expressing his religious beliefs. From the conservative perspective, it is the opposite preference. Either way, both players claim to be exercising their first amendment rights to either freedom of religious expression or freedom of speech to protest. How can one be wrong and the other right? I think this stems from the belief that both religion and politics are uncomfortable (you know, like the things your family doesn’t want to discuss at family gatherings). I think it also stems from the belief that religion is this seemingly apolitical entity. Politics can be infused with religion because religion supposedly provides morality, but then politics isn’t supposed to influence religion (if this were true, slavery would still exist in Christian domains and women wouldn’t be allowed to work, so clearly this thinking is flawed).

Tebow with Bible Verse on Eyeblack Romans 1:16 “I am not ashamed of the gospel”. He has also regularly worn John 3:16 and Ephesians 2:10.

Part of the reason Kaepernick is opposed so strongly by the American public is because of how public he is about protesting. He is attempting to start a conversation on race relations in the U.S. by using his platform as a sports star. Tebow, on the other hand, can be applauded for being quiet, since his kneeling is for his personal faith. This isn’t exactly the full story, though. Tebow wears Bible verses on his eye black, indicating that he is trying to communicate something to his fans. Tebow has also used his platform as a popular player to take a very active stance against abortion. Clearly there is some kind of inconsistency and hypocrisy in opposition to these players. Some will be quick to point out race as a factor. While this is important to note, I believe it comes down to who is seen as more American, in part because both are major players in America’s most popular sport.

Kaepernick’s Promotion of his Nike Ad

Religion in America is a tricky subject. The colonies originated as a haven from religious persecution, but only so far as Christianity was concerned. Any other religions (Judaism at the time, Santeria/local religions and Islam later) were not necessarily welcomed in this part of the world. Part of this lies in relation to race. Christianity, both in past and present, relies on conversion of souls because of the belief that God’s way is the right way. This relates to concepts of “civilizing” persons and supposed innate inferiority of non-whites because their original religions were tribal and not Christian. Even when non-whites were Christian, they were identified as innately “savages” and thus had to be watched close by missionaries “to stamp out the last vestiges of heathenism among black worshippers”. Let’s not forget that slaveowners used the Bible to justify both the institution of slavery and the forced conversion of enslaved people.

“Missionaries, for example, condemned Indians’ ownership of slaves, claiming it reflected both their indolence and cruelty. At the same time, however, missionaries and Choctaws shared an understanding of black racial inferiority… Yet, missionaries were heartened by black people’s religiosity and frequently deemed hem more “civilized” than Indian non-believers”.

Thus, from the conception of the United States, through the period of extensive racialized nation-building, through the period of equal rights, non-whites have been cast as less American because of associations with innate inhumanity. They were deemed less trust-worthy and thus given second-class status because they were associated with either the wrong religion (tribal or Islam), or eventually, the wrong practice of Christianity. Religion played an immense role in shaping classifications of race in America and thus also determined what it means to be “American” in the contemporary context. This appears to be the cause behind Kaepernick receiving more heat than Tebow for their acts of kneeling in football.

For more information on the intersection of sports and American culture, please see here.

For more information on the racism behind the concept of “civilization” and the creation of the United States through Manifest Destiny, see here.

Drake University International Relations (MENA focused), Socio-Legal studies, religious studies and Arabic graduate. This is a blog-like post to learn and share