Colin Kaepernick announced Friday that he is no longer standing for the national anthem in recognition of the marginalized groups still being oppressed within the US. It is a peaceful, personal protest, and is a stance very much embraced by our First Amendment. So, predictably, a lot of people lost their shit over it, and are enraged that he dare to question America’s Greatness®. My experience interacting with football fans is that they are a vociferous lot, highly opinionated, and have a deeply abiding sense for the game’s numerous traditions. If baseball has its “unwritten rules,” then football surely has its “Warrior’s Code.” While I doubt it specifically addresses issues of personal protest, I have most certainly heard all about Greatness.
The are many, many arguments over who is the greatest player, not just overall but by specific position too. It isn’t even enough to talk about the greatest Offensive Tackle or Defensive End either, as you have to also take into account which side of the ball they lined up on, the era they played, the quality of their teammates, their playoff successes, etc., etc., etc. I would not be surprised if these perpetual arguments over greatness actually accounts for a measurable amount of Internet traffic!
What is agreed, however, is that the Great Ones never stop improving. They are always hungry, they are always driven, and they will let nothing prevent them from performing at their absolute best. They will play through pain, they will sacrifice everything else in their life, and every day they will be the first to the field and the last one to leave. They are brutally honest with themselves about their strengths and weaknesses so they can continue to improve. These are the truisms of greatness for which there near unanimous agreement. You cannot be great if you don’t improve. If you stay where you are, if you don’t push yourself to improve, if you don’t want it enough, there will always be someone else who does.
Hard work is a core ethos of Football, and it is constantly discussed through commentary, in columns, and any of the thousands of discussion that take place. Those who make it to the NFL only to rest on their laurels, however, are reviled, ostracized, and eventually relegated to punchlines. They are the “Busts.” Entire cities rested their hopes on them, only to suffer the disappointment and indignation of losing. It is better to leave the game early then to not put in the effort of learning, adjusting, and improving; year in and year out.
Unfortunately, this ethic of improvement so fundamental to Football’s foundation is quickly, and easily, dismissed outside of the game. Professing the idea that the US should improve in its treatment of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community means, somehow, that you hate America. It means that you should leave America immediately, and you should feel bad for even thinking about challenging America’s Greatness. The hypocrisy would be far more staggering if it wasn’t so appalling, since asking our country to improve itself, to stay motivated in treating its citizens with greater equality, is considered a disrespectful sin.
I applaud Kaepernick for his stance, and am glad it is drawing attention to the inequality that still pervades most of our society. With the media normalizing white supremacist dogma via Donald Trump’s campaign, and giving the “Alt-Right” even a shred of legitimacy, it is important to remember how far our country still needs to go. The US is a great country, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a better country, and become even greater. We have come a long way as a Country in improving civil rights and equality, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have a long way to go either. In life, as in football, it isn’t enough just to show up, you have to want it, and you have to get better.