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Kaepernick and the inevitable intersection of sports, politics and the national anthem

San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick warms up before a game against Denver on Aug. 20.
San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick warms up before a game against Denver on Aug. 20. (Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a stand against perceived racism — by sitting down when the national anthem played during a preseason game.

The sheer number of professional, college and amateur sports contests in the United States preceded by The Star-Spangled Banner renders recurring collisions between adhering to protocol and delivering a political statement to be inevitable.

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Of course, anthem controversies in the sporting world are nothing new.

Arguably the most iconic Olympic moment occurred during the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City when two United States sprinters raised gloved fists in a Black Power salute as they stood on the podium. After being banished from the games and sent home, Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos faced death threats.

Also during the Vietnam War, high school football players in North Skokie, Ill., generated a firestorm when they refused to remove their helmets during the anthem's airing.

Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf created a media ripple when he received a suspension for refusing to show proper respect for the flag in 1996. After a one-game suspension, he agreed to stand but gaze at the floor and say a Muslim prayer.

In 2003, when publicity surrounded Manhattanville College basketball player Toni Smith, who turned her back on the anthem, a Vietnam veteran rushed on the court during a game to wave the flag in her face.

Reactions to Mr. Kaepernick have varied from defending his right to speak for the voiceless to criticizing him as just another hypocrite millionaire athlete who benefits by the system and thus has no right to complain.

Of course, these are no ordinary times, with the political spectrum perhaps at its most polarized since 1968 when Richard Nixon, who voiced the concerns of what he called the silent majority, faced off against Democrat Hubert Humphrey, perceived as the candidate allied with the anti-American hippie fervor then sweeping college campuses.

That year, riots embroiled the Democratic National Convention and turned Chicago into a war zone.

Now, as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton supporters are ratcheting up the debate in ever more strident tones against a backdrop of chaos fueled by racially motivated protestors frustrated over clashes with the police, Mr. Kaepernick decided to take his "stand." To his credit, he prepared to face the backlash.

"I am not gong to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he said. Aligning himself with the Black Lives Matter movement, he said, "there are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

For a league that promotes patriotism (even if it charges the armed forces for the privilege of doing so), the NFL gets it right by encouraging, not requiring, players to stand for the anthem.

It is ironic for a country that champions individual liberty to also expect complete conformity to the unwritten rules governing the national anthem. Certainly, in the land of the free, Mr. Kaepernick has a right to do whatever he wants and follow his conscience.

And, since turnabout is fair play, his critics also have every right to flood social media with pointed barbs aimed at his patriotism and what they perceive to be his disrespect of veterans and those who died in uniform.

As the NFL season and the election cycle begin to heat up, let the debate begin over the meaning of the song, the flag and the role of politics in sports.

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Marc Ferris is the author of Star-Spangled Banner: the Unlikely Story of America's National Anthem. His email is mferris16@yahoo.com.

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