Before a 2016 preseason NFL game, San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat down, as opposed to standing, during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” During a post-game interview, he explained his rationale, referencing the events that led to the Black Lives Matter movement:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
On September 1, in the 49ers’ final 2016 preseason game, Kaepernick opted to kneel during the U.S. national anthem. He explained that his decision to kneel, as opposed to sit, was an attempt to show more respect to U.S. military members and veterans while also protesting. Even though Kaepernick received support from both the black community and those outside of that community, others strongly opposed his actions. For example, an NFL fan poll taken in September of 2016 highlighted Kaepernick as the “most disliked” player in the NFL. Kaepernick had stoked the anger of many NFL team front offices. Reportedly, fans boycotted the NFL because of Kaepernick’s protests. In March 2017, Kaepernick officially opted out of his 49ers contract, making him a free-agent at the start of the 2017 league year. Since that time, he has been treated by a pariah by NFL front offices, despite statistical support suggesting that he should be selected by an NFL team.
The conventional wisdom suggests that the hostility that Kaepernick has experienced is about race. To some extent that is true, though it may manifest itself in ways that are not easily discernible. However, race may play a role in complex ways. For example, take four lines of psychological research and what they may suggest.
First, as a general matter, people tend to not like activists. Research suggests that people caricature activists as eccentric and militant.
Second, research on role congruity suggests that a group is positively evaluated when its characteristics appear to align with that group’s typical social roles. Most of the research in this area has focused on gender. For example, research suggests that prejudice towards female leaders occurs because inconsistencies exist between the stereotypes associated with females and those associated with the “typical” leader.
Third, there is a tension between Kaepernick and many NFL front offices’ and fans’ conception of patriotism. In his articulation of “the higher patriotism,” the late United States Senator J. William Fulbright noted:
To criticize one’s country is to do it a service and pay it a compliment. It is a service because it may spur the country to do better than it is doing; it is a compliment because it evidences a belief that the country can do better than it is doing. “This,” said Albert Camus in one of his Letters to a German Friend, is “what separated us from you; we made demands. You were satisfied to serve the power of your nation and we dreamed of giving ours her truth…”
In a democracy dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its value is not its taste but its effects, not how it makes people feel at the moment, but how it inspires them to act thereafter. Criticism may embarrass the country’s leaders in the short run but strengthen their hand in the long run; it may destroy a consensus on policy while expressing a consensus of values. Woodrow Wilson once said that there was “such a thing as being too proud to fight;” there is also, or ought to be, such a thing as being too confident to conform, too strong to be silent in the face of apparent error. Criticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism, a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals of national adulation….
The discharge of that most important duty is handicapped in America by an unworthy tendency to fear serious criticism of our government. In the abstract we celebrate freedom of opinion as a vital part of our patriotic liturgy. It is only when some Americans exercise the right that other Americans are shocked. No one of course ever criticizes the right of dissent; it is always this particular instance of it or its exercise under these particular circumstances or at this particular time that throws people into a blue funk….
This concept, constructive patriotism, reflects a critical loyalty to country characterized by questioning and criticism of current practices and is driven by a desire for positive change. It is juxtaposed to blind patriotism, “a rigid and inflexible attachment to a country, characterized by unquestioning positive evaluation, staunch allegiance, and intolerance of criticism.”
Fourth and finally, when frustrated, people often respond with more hostility to those things that they perceive as lower-status than to those things they perceive as higher-status. In the context of race, engaging with blacks, as opposed to whites, tends to elicit more frustration in similar contexts.
With regards to Kaepernick, those within NFL front offices, as well as fans, are likely to generally dislike him being engaged in activism. They likely stereotype him as a (black) athlete in ways that constrict, in their minds, who he should be and how he should engage around social issues. Their fervent and narrow conception of love for country seems to leave little room for tolerating someone highlighting America’s blemishes. Even more, Kaepernick pushing fans’ and front offices’ buttons from all these angles seems to heighten their frustration and hostility. In fact, this is done in ways that would vex them far less if he were white.