I write about Colin Kaepernick a lot. He manages to come up without coming up. Even when his name isn’t spoken, he’s there — the elephant in the room — whenever the NFL is discussed, particularly when an NFL player commits a serious moral transgression. The tweets start flying. “But Colin Kaepernick can’t get a job, tho… *side-eye emoji*”
The latest flurry of sarcastic jabs at the NFL are coming in the wake of the announcement that the league will suspend Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jameis Winston for three games for violating the league’s Personal Conduct Policy.
A female Uber driver reported that Winston grabbed her crotch without her consent — yet another sexual assault by an NFL player. Winston’s three-game suspension is half of the six-game penalty the league decreed cases of sexual assault would receive. It’s a slap on the wrist, especially when the lies he and others told to cover it up (also violations of the policy) are taken into account.
Crime and punishment.
It’s what Kaepernick wants us to think about, and it’s something the NFL can’t seem to get right. The league has shown itself willing to forgive almost anything a useful player does. As have American football fans. Winston’s transgressions and light punishment will receive a shrug in many circles. Each similar incident highlights how disturbing what’s happened to Kaepernick is.
There’s the obvious hypocrisy of destroying the livelihood of someone who broke no rules and committed no crime, while embracing miscreants and abusers of women. It’s more than that, though. Kaepernick’s ouster from the NFL is an attempt to disappear him, to dwarf him and the people he’s standing up for with a giant flag, to drown them out with the roar of fighter jet engines. The reasons behind this are bigger than football.
George Orwell said, “Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception.” We are living in an Orwellian time, and it’s wise to examine circumstances through that lens.
Last week, I wrote about weaponized civility and how it’s used to protect the powerful (across party lines). These calls for “respect” aren’t about maintaining a smooth-running society so much as they are demands for deference. Kaepernick is being punished for not showing sufficient deference when it was demanded. It didn’t matter that a veteran who wished to see more respect shown to the flag and anthem was the one who suggested Kaepernick kneel. And it didn’t matter that Kaepernick’s protest was silent and dignified. All that mattered was that he wasn’t doing as he was told by people who felt they had the right to do the telling. The backlash against him has been grounded in nationalism from the very start.
The power hunger Orwell spoke of must be fed continuously. This is the purpose deference serves: to assure nationalists that yes, they are the ones in charge. It’s also a reminder to others that they are not. It’s the looking down, the reminding others of their place that puts the steel in their spines. That’s what has them seething: that Kaepernick has passed his place and refuses to find it again. Is it because deep down they know they’ve bowed their heads and can’t stand the sight of someone else refusing to? I suppose that’s where the self-deception comes in.
Nationalism has no substance. Shouting about freedom replaces believing in it. Waving the flag of a nation is a substitute for living up to the country’s highest ideals. Building your identity around that emptiness must be distressing. Constantly searching for ways to avoid looking into the abyss must be exhausting. Is it possible to have genuine self-esteem while living in such a state? I don’t think so. That’s why it’s all so over-the-top and hysterical.
I find it interesting that this bereftness is what the NFL chose to bind itself to. There were ways to say, “the league loves America!” without going whole-hog on steroidal, nationalistic militarism. That it was done so cynically — for money from the armed forces — makes it even worse (you’re tacky, NFL). These decisions were probably also made in service to siphoning off some of the deference these symbols and institutions receive. It was a good show. Until Kaepernick took a knee and said, other people matter, you know. And the promises that were made to them haven’t been kept.
The towering rage against Kaepernick is that of the confronted narcissist who recognizes that someone has seen the void inside them. The confronted narcissist gaslights and dissembles and attacks. They malign. Disparaging the character of the person who’s making them look bad so they won’t be believed is one of their favorite plays. An NFL executive comparing Kaepernick to convicted murderer, Ray Carruth, is the smear that makes me the most stabby.
The maligning of Kaepernick and his protest hasn’t been some grassroots effort. It has been led in large part by the President of the United States. That should give everyone pause.
Something ugly is happening in America. Detention camps are being built for migrant children whom the government has separated from their parents and shipped all over the country. Official government statements are referring to these children, their parents and relatives as an “infestation.” We’ve seen this movie before. This is the language of fascism, and it didn’t spring freshly-born into American life when Donald Trump was elected. I’ve written before that the apparatus at his disposal was built over decades with bipartisan support. This apparatus is what Kaepernick was pointing at.
While responding to comments over the weekend, I shared The Fourteen Defining Characteristics of Fascism and said this:
One of the reasons I write about Colin Kaepernick so much is because nationalism is number 1 for a reason. If you can get that to really stick, you can make everything else fall into place. Colin Kaepernick is being punished for saying no to participating in nationalistic displays that are almost always linked to militarism (number 4). In addition, what he’s protesting against is the ignoring of systemic and widespread human rights violations (number 2) against a racial group that has been historically scapegoated (number 3) in service to an obsession with crime and punishment (number 12). Helping him is helping to push back against all this.
Colin Kaepernick is being maligned and has been hounded out of his livelihood because he presents a threat to a fascistic power structure. Spineless men who sexually assault and beat women don’t. Whom the NFL has chosen to embrace and whom it has elected to exclude speak quite profoundly to the league’s values.