Littwin: Why are we so wounded by the knee |

Littwin: Why are we so wounded by the knee

I tuned into the Broncos’ season opener Thursday night because it was a big game — the much-anticipated Super Bowl rematch between Denver and Carolina — and because I’m a sports junkie who told myself I needed a 31/2-hour break from the news of the day and because, sadly, I’m even more of a news junkie who needed to see whether some Bronco would take a Colin Kaepernick-inspired knee to protest during the national anthem.

And sure enough, Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, one of the stars of last winter’s Super Bowl and a Kaepernick college teammate — took the knee.

Marshall explained after the game that “I’m not against the military. It’s not against the police or America. I’m against social injustice.” And whatever else you think about the protest, it’s undeniable that Kaepernick has put the issue front and center (and linebacker and quarterback).

It was headline news, of course, but hardly shocking unless you consider it shocking any time an athlete takes a stand that is not in his own interest. In fact, the most shocking thing about the Kaepernick protest — and protests, remember, are designed to bring simmering issues to a near boil — and those who have inevitably followed has been the relatively restrained reaction to them.

I mean, the National Football League might as well be a U.S. military adjunct, but one on otherwise-league-banned steroids. There’s flyover country, and then there’s jet-fighter-flyover country. You can’t have a Super Bowl without at least one camera constantly trained on troops watching the game from some country most Americans can’t find on a map while, back in the States, they’re unfurling a football-field-sized American flag to show just how much, as measured in cubic yards, we love America.

I remember covering a Super Bowl in Tampa the year of the first Persian Gulf War. On that day, the unabashedly pro-war NFL — which handed each fan a tiny American flag, presumably to show you can love America even when waving an inexpensive, disposable, probably made-in-China flag — proved that you don’t need to wear patriotically revealing outfits to be a cheerleader.

Here’s what I wrote that day: “What the NFL philosophy majors are telling us, in effect, as the hundred million-plus viewers around the nation look on, is that support for the war is the only possible response to the Gulf crisis. And, even better, they’re telling us that a football game is the proper forum to express that opinion.”

So, I was shocked to see NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell basically support Kaepernick’s right to protest. When asked about it, Goodell wanted to be clear that “we believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL” and that he clearly wished that Kaepernick would just get with the program and that, by God, he always stood for the national anthem or any other song with America in the lyrics. But he also said, “Players have a platform, and it’s his right to do that.” You know, so long as the players are respectful and don’t put anything on their helmets not specifically endorsed by the league or, God forbid, celebrate too vigorously following a touchdown. There are limits, after all.

And while people have, of course, burned Kaepernick’s jersey in protest of his protest — as is their right — his jersey also is the biggest seller in the league just now.

And, sure, Kaepernick has been burned himself for weeks on social media, but the same could have happened if he’d thrown an ill-considered pass at a critical moment. At the Broncos game, untried quarterback Trevor Siemian was actually booed at times during some of his rougher moments, and all he had done was failed to get a first down. It’s a tough world out there. Just ask Olympian Gabby Douglas, once America’s sweetheart, who was brought to tears by social-media critics who didn’t like her, uh, facial expressions.

But it’s also a difficult time for the love-it-or-leave-it crowd. The best remark I’ve seen about Kaepernick was in a tweet from @BettyBowers, who wrote: “FUN FACT: Most people saying Colin Kaepernick is unpatriotic for criticizing America are wearing red ball caps that say America isn’t great.”

Meanwhile, those same people are having to defend Donald Trump’s full-on embrace of Vladimir Putin, who has crushed Russian democracy while harassing, jailing and/or killing those who oppose him. Is it unpatriotic — or simply ignorant — to compare Putin favorably to Barack Obama?

In either case, it’s his right, just as it was Marshall’s right. In Marshall’s case, the stakes are much higher. The idea that rich, spoiled professional athletes risk nothing by making a stand betrays, well, not a deep understanding of how the games work. Marshall risks everything. Even as his coach, Gary Kubiak, has expressed his support for Marshall’s right to protest while also saying he wished all the players would stand, everyone knows that Marshall’s right not to stand extends only as far as Marshall’s ability to stand up the next running back he encounters. This isn’t Muhammad Ali’s territory, but you can’t doubt that football careers matter, too.

As a quarterback, Kaepernick had even more at stake. For many, he’s a pariah. And while his status on the 49ers was already in question, many fewer teams would now be willing to take him on, because while, say, accused rapists usually get a second or third chance, taking an unpopular political stand is an entirely different matter.

Today, there will be other individual protests. And there are rumors that some of the Seattle Seahawks are planning a group protest. And the unlikely movement just may grow, or maybe it won’t. But in the end, it was just football. The Broncos won, and I’m guessing most Bronco fans, whatever their politics, can live with that.

Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for

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