An Attitude About Gratitude: On Colin Kaepernick, Paul Finebaum & What Black People Do Not Owe America

ESPN commentator Paul Finebaum has his panties in a bunch about what he perceives as Colin Kaepernick’s “attitude” toward America and the NFL.

He actually said the following during a panel discussion of Kaep’s refusal to stand during the playing of the National Anthem at games, in protest of police brutality against black people in America:

“I honestly have no idea where he’s coming from with all this. What really gets to me is the fact that he’s capable of doing something like that when this country, which he blatantly spit on, this country is what gave him the opportunity to rise to the stars and to be recognized and celebrated.

“What kind of man is capable of doing that and giving that sort of thanks to the very community that supported and admired him?

“Seriously, I still can’t get over the fact that he was that disrespectful.”

I’m going to take off my blogger hat for a second to address my first issue with this argument that Finebaum is making, and put on my English instructor’s hat. If you’ll indulge me.

And I’m going to say that Finebaum is conflating the American government with the NFL here, and that is a logical fallacy.

By refusing to stand while the National Anthem is being played, Kaep may not be “respecting” America the way that Finebaum thinks he should, but he is not disrespecting the entity that “gave him the opportunity to rise to the stars,” either. That’s the NFL.

When Kaep refuses to play a scheduled game, which he hasn’t done, or refuses to play when put on the field, which he also hasn’t done, then Finebaum can make the claim that he is disrespecting the community that has “supported” and “admired” him.

The current formation of his protest isn’t an affront to the NFL; it’s a demonstration against American law enforcement and a statement to the public that Kaep stands in solidarity with the black community against police brutality.

Because the playing of the National Anthem at football game is a patriotic tradition and nothing more; it isn’t a version of the oath the policemen take to do their job to the best of their ability; it doesn’t “belong” to the NFL exclusively; “respecting” it isn’t a contractual duty of NFL players.

In fact, it seems that respecting anything outside of winning games and making money isn’t a duty or concern of a rather sizable segment of NFL players, let the number of recent arrests of NFL players tell it.

Which is why Kaep’s concern for black lives and willingness to speak out against police brutality is so refreshing to so many of us.

But that’s another discussion. Let me get back to my exegesis of Finebaum’s off-key, anti-black bluster–

Conflating the nation and the National Football League allows him to appear to criticize Kaep for being “unpatriotic” when the real issue that Finebaum has with Kaep is he thinks Kaep is an ingrate.

Because if you want to be technical, about 70% of NFL players are black men, so it’s doubtful his protest is viewed as disrespectful, even within the professional football community.

The people in the NFL that have made the most fuss about Kaep exercising his First Amendment rights to free speech, or free speech action, are the white male coaches and owners, who apparently feel, like Finebaum, that “[old school white officials] . . . were kind enough to allow black people to participate in all of [their] sports . . . but . . . somewhere along the line, the brakes went down the drain, and so now . . . [black people] are acting like [we] own [American professional sports], like [we] invented them as [our] gift to puny, feeble white people.”

Finebaum says that the NFL and NBA opened up professional play to black players to effect “greater cohesion and fewer incidents and racial tension” in American society, but, now, he says, blacks are “systematically pushing out white players . . . they’re acting like they were meant to play sports and nothing else” and “white people are being treated unfairly  and unequally” as a result.

I have to put on my amateur historian’s hat to dispute this–a ploy to make whites look like victims of the changing tide in the demographics of the NFL and NBA and not the agents of that change.

First, and I know how frustrating and tiresome this will be for all those people that want to pretend as if when slavery ended, it stopped having an effect on American culture, but, whatever, slavery is the reason that black people are here, in America, in 2016, dominating the professional athletic landscape.

Had slave traders not kidnapped and trafficked us, had plantation owners not bought and exploited us, we’d be in Africa, and I venture to guess whites would be lobbing these racist complaints about minorities in professional sports at Latinos or whoever else got stuck at the bottom of the social barrel in our absence.

However, the slave traders did kidnap and traffic us, and the plantation owners did buy and exploit us–some of them even bred us–and so here we are, black Americans, begrudged inheritors of this nation’s legacy of racial exploitation and racist denial.

We are the product of the evolution of our African forebears–that just so happen to be uniquely anatomically outfitted for certain sports.

According to researchers, we have shorter torsos and longer limbs with smaller circumferences, which produce higher centers of gravity, and that enables us to move our feet faster.

This gives us the obvious advantage in football and basketball, which may be why some of us feel or act like we are “meant” to play these sports, especially when the result is that we excel in both.

If you ask me, Finebaum seems more upset about that–the fact that black football players consistently outperform white football players–than he does loyal to America and defensive in the nation’s name.

Now, as far as the “official” integration of professional football goes, it had nothing to do with the magnanimity of white team owners or coaches. Naturally.

Before the 1940s, there was some integration in football, but it placed mainly indigenous players on professional teams; very few blacks played in the NFL, and, after 1933, the league developed a decidedly anti-black ethic that held until after WWII.

According to historians, in 1946, after the Rams moved to Los Angeles, members of the black print media got together and informed the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission that because it was supported with public funds, it had to abide by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision of the Supreme Court. This meant it could not lease the Coliseum to a segregated sports team, which put the black print media in a perfect position to exert pressure on the Rams to integrate.

So the black press began to campaign for Kenny Washington, one of the greatest collegiate football players in American history, to get a tryout with the Rams; they set the Rams up for a win-win situation.

And the Rams took the bait. When the Commission stipulated that the team would in fact have to integrate in order to lease the Coliseum, the Rams signed Washington on March 21.

This is how and why integration happened to the NFL–through legal necessity–to ensure the league’s continued monetary success.

So Finebaum is not just erroneous but disingenuous in his claim that white people let black people into the NFL to promote integration and racial harmony.

That was a supposed byproduct of what was actually a clear, coerced business decision for the sake of profit.

A decision that does amount to black people “gifting”–in a sense–modern professional sports to white people, regardless of what Finebaum says or thinks.

Our participation in their teams allowed these teams to continue to play when integration was stipulated, and it has perennially brought millions of black fans and billions of black dollars to the sport since the 1940s.

Our excellence in football and basketball in particular has made both of these sports American entertainment mammoths and won hundreds of mediocre white athletes incidental fame, fortune, glory, and championship trophies and rings by playing alongside of us.

As far as black people acting as if we aren’t supposed to do “anything else” but play sports–another ludicrous thing Finebaum said–that’s nothing but sour grapes and side-of-the-neck racism talking.

Because in this age, black people are appearing in the media just as often for academic achievement, business innovation, and freedom fighting as they are for winning fucking football games.

If Finebaum doesn’t see this, it’s because he doesn’t want to see it. And that’s his bigoted bad. Black people aren’t losing sleep over white people’s colorblindness to our accomplishments.

Black people are also not “systematically” pushing white people out of sports because only one team is owned by a black man, only five teams out of 32 have black coaches, and there were just seven black general managers in the League in 2015.

The white men that run the NFL are the ones pushing the white players out of the League by drafting black players. They are doing just what the leaders of the Rams did back in 1946; they are putting black men on their teams to continue to make money.

Since black players routinely outplay white players, they are more of a draw for fans; they increase teams’ chances at winning championships, and they bring the added benefit of making NFL teams seem “moral” and placating minority TV viewers and purchasers of game tickets and paraphernalia.

Finebaum is like a textbook Trump supporter in his refusal to see that: The people undermining the white players with which he so clearly identifies and empathizes are the NFL equivalent of the 1%.

Finebaum is also ignoring that Colin Kaepernick is the abandoned child of a white mother and black father that got adopted, raised by a white couple in two separate white enclaves, and still managed to grow into a record-breaking football player with a seemingly functional sense of racial identity.

I don’t know what it must have been like for him growing up, but I can’t imagine it was easy assimilating the myriad realities of being orphaned, adopted, and black in a white world as a young athlete, all at the same damn time.

Yet, he did it, and he made himself into a professional, accomplished football player to boot.

He got drafted and signed by the 49ers in 2012 as a culmination of all his effort. He didn’t win a sweepstakes or lottery. He played good ball, and the 49ers drafted him so he could play for them and help them win Super Bowls.

I suppose he should be grateful that he got the sundry opportunities that led him to become a professional football player, but he doesn’t “owe” America for that. After he started playing, and achieving as a player, he was earning them.

If you think about his arc in ethereal terms, you might say he owes God for his anatomy and talent, if anything.

If you think in more practical terms, you might say he owes the Kaepernicks for adopting and raising him and fostering his development as a football player. Indubitably.

But he doesn’t owe America, as I said, because that’s not how America works. America isn’t our hard-working father that broke his back to put us through college. America is a political entity.

We are granted certain freedoms, rights, and protections by that entity, and all we have to do to secure them is be or become citizens, stay on the right side of the law, and pay taxes.

We don’t have to stand up for the National Anthem or put our hands over our hearts during the Pledge or fly the flag from the eaves of our roofs or do any of that if we don’t want to. The Constitution doesn’t mandate that or make that a condition of citizenship or anything like that.

And even though these are long-standing social mores that many Americans regard as tributes to our founding fathers, our soldiers, and our police officers, for others they seem like a form of secular idolatry, and for others still observing these mores feels like bowing to an abusive master–saying “thank you” for undue oppression and discrimination.

Finebaum said several times during the ESPN panel on Kaepernick that black people in America are not oppressed, but he’s wrong. His statement is ahistorical, inaccurate, and emotive. It’s not based in fact.

Blacks in America remain victims of structural racism across the board, and, just because a few of us are famous or rich doesn’t mean that the rest of us are shiftless and wholly responsible for our own discrimination and disempowerment.

Exceptionalism has always elevated a small segment of the black population in this nation, and even the most famous and rich black people in America still have richer and more powerful white people that they answer to.

Well, except for maybe Oprah and Beyoncé.

And Olivia Pope. And Command.

All kidding aside, the idea that black people should be grateful to live wedged up under white hegemony and supremacy, just because this affords many of us the opportunities to still make money and live relatively safely, is–you know what I’m going to say here–oppressive itself. It’s racist.

It comes directly out of the white entitlement and resentment and fear of displacement and annihilation that have fostered Trump’s political ascendency.

Black people deserve all the same rights, freedoms, and protections as all other American citizens because we helped build America. We contributed to its greatness on all fronts, from art to technical innovation. We put in on this; we’re not indebted.

We’ve fought for it in every war in which our troops have been involved. We help pay for it with our tax dollars, and we help keep it running with our work and consumer spending.

We have died for America and in America since the birth of the nation (pun intended). We stick stubbornly, and some might say stupidly, to it, too, even though it betrays and abuses us time and again, no matter how we try to stop it.

We fucking love America. Yes, I said it. Black people love America. Enough though we want to fix it. So we can finally live decently in it.

Which is–and finally we can come around to it–the real reason Kaep is protesting. And Finebaum knows it.

Kaep is being an American in the textbook political sense. He is exercising a Constitutional right in the pursuit of guaranteed freedom.

Kaep isn’t ungrateful. He’s galvanized. He’s using his influence and affluence to help other black and black biracial people because he understands that by a stroke of bad luck, he can find himself a victim of police brutality or murder, even if he is a famous football player.

And if so-called attitude or gratitude is going to be located at the center of a national debate, then that debate shouldn’t be about one football player and his small form of protestation. It should be about how unjust the allowance of racist police brutality is to tax-paying citizens overall.

White people like Finebaum want to check blacks like Kaep for having attitudes because they think these black people should be grateful they were given a chance to become rich and successful.

But it’s really white people that should be grateful–that black people haven’t started raining more violence down on their cops–or ordinary white citizens–in answer to the violence they rain down on us.

Kaep’s protest is peaceful and legal and much more dignified than America deserves or a cretin like Paul Finebaum can appreciate.

But if he and his ilk are going to press the issue–if they’re going to insist on unflagging allegiance from black people, then they should work with Kaepernick to make America more amenable to blacks, not against him.

They might also work to swap out the anthem as well because not only is “The Star-Spangled Banner” difficult to sing, its back story is highly dysfunctional, and its lyrics are highly offensive.

Seriously. Google it. I’m not even kidding: The first verse has all that soaring imagery or whatever, but that that second, unsung verse is a doozy.












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