Kaepernick is the outspoken backer of the Black Lives Matter movement who sat and then knelt during the national anthem last year and cannot find a job for the 2017 season.
And the term “boy,” used by white segregationists in the American South to denigrate and belittle Black men, is no overstatement.
Team owners oversee a violent league with intense play that frequently inflicts life-long brain injuries on players.
NFL players, nearly 70 percent of them African American, are used by team owners and then discarded like unwanted property – often with broken bodies and minds – after less than three years on average.
Reluctantly, the league has agreed to a $1 billion settlement that could pay off the most injured players with as much as $5 million for a tortured deterioration into dementia and suicidal depression.
Similarly, returning US troops face inadequate and inappropriate treatment for depression, suicide risk and post-traumatic stress disorder, but white fans who roar that Kaepernick is disrespecting the troops appear to have far less to say about the wars and their consequences for US military forces, let alone for civilians in the invaded countries.
No doubt players and fans love the game, but questions are fast emerging in the minds of both about the wisdom of involvement in the sport and the morals of cheering as minds and bodies are destroyed.
The treatment of Kaepernick is apt to concentrate the minds of more players on the relative risks and rewards of football and how willing owners are to abuse players’ bodies while discounting the substance of their views.
A year ago, Kaepernick, then playing with the San Francisco 49ers, dared to protest during the national anthem, telling a journalist with NFL Media his views on police violence: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.”
He added, “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people [police] getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Should the regular season begin on 7 September with Kaepernick still unsigned, player leaders will have important decisions to make about how to proceed.
Questions to the NFL Players Association from The Electronic Intifada about Kaepernick’s case went unanswered.
Seahawk defensive end Michael Bennett, who this offseason said he would “not be used” by the Israeli government in a planned propaganda trip to Israel, argued that Kaepernick’s treatment “shows the racial divide in the league.” He added, “Racism is the biggest issue in America.”
Malcolm Jenkins, a safety with the Philadelphia Eagles who stood with fist raised during the national anthem last season, called the NFL teams “cowards.”
Jenkins dismissed the argument that Kaepernick is no longer good enough to play in the NFL. “I think it’s safe to throw out that talent argument, and basically focus on the fact that he doesn’t have a job solely because he didn’t stand for the anthem last year, even though he already expressed that he planned on standing this year.”
Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers in March, but has found no team willing to sign him to a new contract.
Racism in the NFL
Meanwhile, teams have signed inferior quarterbacks, supercharging concerns of bias and even possible collusion.
Serious questions are being put to the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins following injuries to their starting quarterbacks. Baltimore, of course, has been much in the news of late on account of the sort of police misconduct Kaepernick has highlighted.
And some fans of the Dolphins along with Florida-based sports pundits have criticized Kaepernick over his views of Fidel Castro after the quarterback praised Cuba’s investments in promoting literacy and universal healthcare, as opposed to incarceration, as well as Cuba’s support for the fight against apartheid in South Africa.
The Dolphins chose to replace their injured quarterback with Jay Cutler who is widely regarded as a weaker quarterback than Kaepernick, albeit one who previously played for the Chicago Bears’ offensive coordinator Adam Gase, who is now the Dolphins’ head coach.
Cutler’s politics, in contrast to Kaepernick’s, have proven to be no obstacle. “I’m happy with the results,” Cutler said after last November’s election. “I’ve supported Trump for a while. I’m not going to dive into it. I know it’s a sensitive issue. I like where it’s going.”
These are telling and prescient remarks from a white quarterback who would come out of retirement the following year to secure a one-year contract worth $10 million in a hateful political climate nurtured by a president who has repeatedly given nods to white supremacists and has bad-mouthed Kaepernick.
But white supremacy is increasingly normalized in today’s politics; a quarterback speaking out against racial injustice is perceived as a danger by too many NFL owners.
Of course, it is not recalling ancient history to remember that this is a league that long stuck with white quarterbacks over African Americans. Black players were kept in what The New York Times’ Michael Powell termed “apartheid positions.” Seventy percent of the players in the NFL today are African American yet discrimination remains a reality when one looks at the quarterback position and coaching ranks.
Sending a message
Team owners – who are almost exclusively white – are also sending a message to other players to be very cautious about speaking up about police abuses and other issues not in line with the perceived sensitivities of white fans.
Even if Kaepernick finally gets offered a contract this summer, the message has been delivered to athletes: keep your mouths shut on social justice issues, particularly when the national anthem is being played.
Kaepernick is best known for his support of Black Lives Matter, but has wide-ranging social justice interests. For example, earlier this year he retweeted a message critical of Israeli apartheid.
Though on a San Francisco team that struggled mightily throughout last season – which likely contributes to undercutting Kaepernick’s perceived value – the quarterback’s off-the-field work was enthusiastically received in many communities.
As law professor Khaled Beydoun noted, Kaepernick held ‘know your rights’ camps for youth, pledged $1 million of his own money to nonprofits working against oppression and helped fight famine in Somalia.
Yet so far, many fans calling sports radio and writing letters to the editor have indicated they would rather field a quiescent team and lose than one calling for equality and win.
“Racial attitudes had a notable relationship to white opposition to athletes’ protests,” Tatishe M. Nteta, Brian Schaffner and Matthew C. MacWilliams wrote in The Washington Post in April.
The three political scientists said their polling demonstrates a strong relationship “between holding negative stereotypes of Blacks and strong opposition to the protests.”
Kaepernick’s calls for social justice and against police misconduct follow in the powerful tradition of athletes addressing important issues of the time. These protests have been fitful because of the powerful backlash they face.
Muhammad Ali, whose image can be seen emblazoned from time to time on a Kaepernick T-shirt, was one of the most famous of these protesters and paid a heavy price. Ali, a conscientious objector, was first stripped of his heavyweight title and then fined $10,000, banned from boxing for three years and sentenced to up to five years behind bars. He managed through appeal to stay out of prison.
Ali’s words from the time, however, live on: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” A supporter of Palestinian rights, Ali – first debilitated by Parkinson’s disease and now just a vibrant memory – is currently heralded by mainstream media that spoke against him half a century ago.
Eminent sociologist Harry Edwards, who advised Kaepernick last season, said in May: “Ali created a conversation.”
He added: “when the world champion steps forward and says, ‘No Viet Cong ever called me a (expletive), and we have some issue we need to deal with here, not over there in a war that make no sense,’ it moved the discussion to another level.”
According to Edwards, Kaepernick similarly “sparked a national conversation about race.”
Trump takes credit
For all the talk of the American “meritocracy,” there is seeming satisfaction in Trump’s America with whiteballing a superior athlete on account of his upholding the rights of African Americans and other people of color.
Even the president has not been silent on the case. Apparently peeved that Kaepernick dared to call the Republican presidential candidate “openly racist” – at the time, Kaepernick also criticized Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for her racially charged “superpredator” comment – Trump told a radio program that perhaps Kaepernick “should find a country that works better for him.”
“It was reported that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump. Do you believe that?” As the crowd’s roars of approval subside, Trump exults, “I just saw that. I just saw that.”
Trump has not lacked for support from NFL owners. Team owners Dan Snyder of the openly racist Washington Redskins, Stan Kroenke, Bob McNair and Shahid Kahn all contributed $1 million for inauguration festivities. So, too, did Robert Kraft who has been active in promoting propaganda trips to Israel by current and former NFL players.
Trump-connected Woody Johnson, owner of the Jets, for his part signed a weaker option in Josh McCown to play quarterback for his lackluster team. According to The New York Times, the team owner “opined that he did not think much of Kaepernick’s protest.” Notably, Johnson will be the next US ambassador to the UK.
Writing in the The Hollywood Reporter, retired basketball superstar and former US global cultural ambassador Kareem Abdul-Jabbar raised concerns about the political leanings of NFL owners as a factor in Kaepernick’s situation: “Perhaps a contributing factor is that the NFL owners tend to contribute more money to Republican political campaigns and therefore have more of a philosophical interest in not wanting to hear the players’ messages about social injustice.”
The owners undoubtedly have a friend in Trump. Not only does the president extol the virtues of getting rough with people detained by police, but he scoffs at football concussions as “a little ding on the head” that should not stop players who are supposed to be “tough.”
It remains to be seen whether we have reached a tipping point for players concerned not just about brain injuries, but their right to speak freely.
Will players such as Kaepernick, Martellus and Michael Bennett, and Malcolm Jenkins continue to speak outand find more teammates to support them or will the retaliation against Kaepernick have a chilling effect?
Edwards, the sociologist who advised Kaepernick, says, “If they are stupid enough to make a martyr out of Kaep, it’s going to get even more interesting.”
An online petition to boycott NFL games until Kaepernick is signed to a contract has already garnered over 150,000 signatures and is growing quickly.
South Africa marks 12 years of BDS successes
South Africa has been described by Israeli media as the “mothership” of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. While we as a country have made remarkable strides, we are only but one partner in this growing international human rights movement, a movement that proudly turned 12 this year.
In 2005, Palestinians called on the international community to support a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against the government of Israel until it abides by international law.
The BDS movement, as it has come to be known, is inspired by the successful boycott of apartheid South Africa and has grown to include millions of allies globally. It has wide-reaching support in South Africa. The largest protest in South African history, after all, was the National Coalition 4 Palestine’s 2014 #SAMarch4Gaza in support of the Palestinian struggle.
BDS successes, which are registered on a monthly basis across the country and globe, motivate peace-loving peoples around the world. They are a practical form of solidarity that sends a clear and concrete message to Israel that there is a price to pay for its crimes. These victories and activities also bolster the spirit of resistance of Palestinians and their progressive Jewish Israeli allies fighting for an end to Israeli apartheid.
The BDS movement is indeed moving at an encouraging, inspiring and electrifying pace. Israel and its lobby groups are trying to respond (rather than ending Israel’s apartheid) but they are failing.
In July, in a decision with far reaching impact, the General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches, representing over 80 million Christians, called on its members to take action in support of the Palestinians. Among other measures, the body has urged its more than 225 member churches worldwide to examine their investment relationships.
These churches are joining a long list of Christian congregations taking similar positions and resolutions. These include the Quakers, United Methodists, the Mennonite Church of the USA, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalists, the Catholic Conference of Major Superiors of Men, the Alliance of Baptists, the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA).
Last year, when the UCCSA, with over 1,000 local South African churches, adopted the BDS boycott of Israel, the church, importantly, drew attention to the deceptive conflation between “Biblical Israel” and the “Modern State of Israel” and between the Israelites of the Bible and Israelis.
Beyond the churches, South Africa is also scoring major wins on the cultural, academic, sports, consumer, political and government front. One of our first major wins was in 2011 when the University of Johannesburg ended its relations with Israel’s Ben-Gurion University. This set the context for further academic boycott successes including South Africa’s largest student formation, SASCO, adopting BDS, followed by the South African Union of Students also endorsing a similar resolution.
Last year, after engagement by the local BDS South Africa chapter, several academics pulled out of a conference on genocide taking place in Israel. Among those who withdrew, much to the Israeli organizers’ irritation, was the vice president of the International Network of Genocide Scholars, who hails from South Africa.
The BDS campaign is also active within the South African cultural sector with some of the country’s biggest artists, comedians and film stars coming out to back the movement, our activities and events.
This year, award-winning South African film director John Trengove withdrew from an Israeli film festival hosted in Tel Aviv. The South African withdrawal led to several other international filmmakers also canceling their participation.
Politics and labor
Within the trade union movement, COSATU, one of the first labor federations in the world to adopt BDS, has not only incorporated BDS within its local organizing and among affiliates but has also been championing its promotion at an international level.
COSATU and its affiliates, for example, were some of the main drivers of the Public Services International adopting BDS as a strategy at the global trade union federation’s congress in Durban a few years back. PSI is one of the largest federations in the world, representing more than 20 million workers.
On the political front, South African President Jacob Zuma, for two years in a row now, has included in his 8 January speech marking the founding of the African National Congress a reminder to all employees in government that they are to boycott travel to Israel.
Furthermore, the recent recommendation by South Africa’s governing party to downgrade its embassy in Tel Aviv has been welcomed by Palestinians across the political spectrum – including the Palestinian Authority, Fatah and Hamas – and is a major signal to Israel that its violations of international law are unacceptable, that it cannot be business as usual.
Importantly, the recommendation to downgrade has also been welcomed by South African Jews for a Free Palestine, an organization representing a growing number of Jews in this country in support of BDS. The South African Communist Party, COSATU and various other organizations also came out in support of a downgrade or shutting down of the embassy.
At a government level there have been various successes. The Israeli ambassador has tried in the last few years to sign contracts between our two countries in the water sector – selling a similar colonial line that was sold to African countries by apartheid South Africa during the 1980s, that without our technology you will not progress. Likewise, Israel and its lobbyists are trying to suggest that we, as African countries, cannot do without their technology.
To Israel’s embarrassment, several events that the Israeli ambassador tried to host with the South African government were canceled. Furthermore, water minister Nomvula Mokonyane warned against Israel’s so-called water technology, saying Israel has been using water as a “tool to control the Palestinian state.”
“Israel,” she added, “is the world’s leading practitioner in water apartheid.”
Note of caution
However, some officials at South Africa’s department of international relations do not always respect the country’s policies on this issue.
Last year, for example, at the very time Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete was celebrating the BDS movement in her address to the annual Israeli Apartheid Week campaign, Jerry Matjila, then director general of the department of international relations, was at a photo shoot with Dore Gold, his counterpart from the Israeli foreign ministry.
Matjila claimed in contradiction with government policy, that he wanted to investigate ways in which he could improve relations with Israel.
How to hold such individuals accountable needs to be investigated especially at a time when the Israeli government has made public the huge amount of resources that are being invested in trying to thwart the BDS movement.
In some ways, the collective magnitude of our joint successes is reflected in the fact that Israel is investing time, energy and money to counter BDS. As Palestinian BDS leader Omar Barghouti put it, while activists are unnerved by the Israeli government’s attempt to attack this nonviolent movement, we are definitely not deterred.
Eyes on the prize
Palestinian academic Nada Elia, in an article celebrating 12 years of BDS, has noted how the wide array of successes, victories and campaigns over the last 12 years reveals the extent to which multiple segments of society – students, church members, unions, athletes and superstars – are now aware of and actively opposed to Israel’s abuses.
However, she cautions, no matter how much we have gained from these years of organizing, the biggest victory is still to come. And that is the day Palestinians (like us South Africans, the indigenous people of the land) are free in their homeland.
“Each victory we score – and we continue to score victories big and small almost daily – is proof that we, the people, are stronger than the most militarized powers that are intent on suppressing us,” Elia writes. “We must keep our eyes on the prize, as this is one case where the final destination, not just the empowering journey, is what matters.”
That day is coming sooner rather than later because of the Palestinian spirit of perseverance together with the advances of the BDS movement – a movement that gains its strength not from military power or financial resources but from the people.
The BDS victories, successes and wins of the last decade, both in South Africa and beyond, are not that of one organization or group of activists: they belong to the various communities who come out to protests, who stay away from certain stores, who make donations, attend rallies and events.
The ordinary person gives this extraordinary movement its internationalist muscle.
Kwara Kekana is the national spokesperson and Muhammed Desai is the national coordinator of BDS South Africa, a local South African partner of the international BDS movement which is led by the Palestinian BDS National Committee based in Ramallah. A version of this article was originally published by South Africa’sWeekend Argus newspaper.
- South Africa
- BDS South Africa
- African National Congress (ANC)
- trade union activism
- church activism