By the time Muhammad Ali died in June, the process was already complete, the sentimentalizing and neutering of a legacy that otherwise would have made a whole lot of Americans uncomfortable.
What a wonderful thing that Ali stood up for his beliefs. What an act of courage to sacrifice so much for a point of principle. He was a beacon, an exemplar, by the end of his life a symbol of unity and acceptance and tolerance, a black American Muslim celebrated as a national hero at the same time as Donald Trump was becoming the presidential nominee of the Republican Party.
No, that wasn’t a fairy tale, but it did skip past most of the grotty bits, the human stuff, the part about Ali in the moment inspiring more hatred and disgust than love and respect. A large segment of the population despised Ali, believed that he was a coward in refusing the draft, that he was shirking his duty to his country, that coming from modest beginnings he had become rich and famous in the United States of America and that if he didn’t like that, maybe he ought to move somewhere else. When your country calls you to war, as it had called generations in the past, you don’t pause to ask if the cause is righteous. Never mind that “conscientious objector” stuff, especially when your religion seems so strange and foreign. You just go.
It was an angry, unsettled time.
And this is an angry unsettled time, the angriest year since 1968, when much of the planet seemed on the verge of revolution. Once again the fissures of race and class are gaping, and all of those comforting notions that seemed plausible not so long ago about post-racial societies and the end of history have gone out the window.
Into the fray has stepped Colin Kaepernick, which wouldn’t have caused a ripple in that roiling ocean were it not for the fact that he plays football for a living.
He didn’t put out a press release—or even a tweet—to announce his intentions or espouse his position. He sat through the "Star-Spangled Banner" before the San Francisco 49ers first two pre-season games, and nobody noticed. When somebody finally did, before the third game, and then asked him why, he answered, and if it wasn’t the most articulate, nuanced response, you’d be hard-pressed to question its sincerity.
Something is wrong out there, Kaepernick is saying. People are dying. And so right now, I’m not willing to stand up and salute.
Something is wrong out there. But in a country that is particularly fetishistic about its flag and its anthem and its patriotic rituals (the hand over the heart, the Pledge of Allegiance...) those are fighting words.
Kaepernick is taking a huge risk. His playing career, three and a half years after nearly winning a Super Bowl, was already hanging by a thread. Contracts in the NFL are not guaranteed and there are myriad examples of players being passed over, or cut, because they might represent a "distraction" in the dressing room—a word that can be interpreted rather broadly. That’s the way the NFL does business, and that’s its prerogative, as are the league’s practices of mining jingoism for profit, of symbolically aligning itself with the military, of attempting to blur the lines between kin and country and individual acts of bravery on the battlefield and foreign policy and political cynicism and football.
Somehow, Beyoncé managed to slip an homage to the Black Panther Party into the last Super Bowl halftime show—and how many people got fired for that?—but by and large the league manages to stay on message, making sure that its product and simple-minded patriotism are indivisible in the public mind.
Baseball found a way to live with Carlos Delgado and the National Basketball Association with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (after initially suspending him), but there probably isn’t room for Colin Kaepernick in this sport, in this culture. If he gets cut, it will be for "football reasons" and if he doesn’t land with another team, it will be because he’s just not good enough any more or because his presence in a locker room would be more hindrance than help, and some of that might actually be true.
But he’s no "idiot" (as at least one American sports columnist labelled him), he’s no ingrate, he wasn’t showing a lack of respect for the men and women in uniform or comforting the enemy or pulling down the pillars of society.
He’s no Ali either—they broke the mould there.
But listen to some of the things that are being said about Kaepernick. Any student of history will find them all too familiar.