On August 26, 2016 a photo was taken. It was a joke by an SB Nation reporter mocking, of all things, the then-coach of my favorite NFL team. It was nothing; a wide-shot of a preseason NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers. And then, that evening, it became much bigger than nothing.
It was a minute detail toward the bottom of this photo that caught people’s eyes. Behind the crowd of players, during a moment in which everyone is meant to be standing out of respect for…something (more on this later), were the head and shoulders of a lone player, clearly not standing with the rest of his teammates. It’s difficult to tell from the original image who, but zooming in revealed the top-half of a number 7. The player was 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
You’ll have to forgive me for this, but I’m going to talk about me for a bit. This isn’t because I really want to; I know some of you will care little and most of you will care even less. However, I often feel as though the only context I can provide for my thought processes is through myself, so bear with me.
I was born in Omaha, Nebraska a little over 25 years ago, raised in a town just 20 miles north of there, and have been a Cornhusker football fan my entire life. My earliest football memory is my dad dancing to the Tunnel Walk song just before the 1997 Orange Bowl. However, my most important football memory, in the context of how it shaped my love of the game, happened on October 27th, 2001. Defending National Champion and No. 2 ranked Oklahoma had come to Lincoln to play No. 3 Nebraska in a game that had long since been touted as one of the biggest of the year virtually every year. I couldn’t have possibly cared any less about those details – I was nine years old and more concerned with wrestling my cousins, trying not to get yelled at by any of the adults. However I distinctly remember stopping in front of the big-screen television in the basement just in time to watch one of the best football plays I’ve ever seen happen.
In the context of that game, the Black Flash 41 Reverse Pass was important because it gave Nebraska a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter. In the context of me though, it sparked a love for a team and sport that would only grow over the next 16 years. For everything I’ve seen both on television and in person – Nebraska’s comeback against Ohio State, the Kick Six, Michigan State stealing a win against Michigan off of a botched punt – none of these give me the same goosebumps as hearing Warren Swain and Adrian Fiala break down that play, crescendoing from the standard play-by-play voice to screaming “ERIC CROUCH, 15, 10, 5, TOUCHDOWN”.
A lot has changed since that photo I mentioned was taken. The subject of said photo has effectively been ostracized by the NFL, an organization that has long-since aimed to avoid any sort of political controversy, lest it cut into the league’s massive revenue stream, and choose to slap the magical label of distraction on any such talking point. Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem was a distraction. Michael Sam coming at as gay, and in doing so becoming the first openly gay player to be drafted by the NFL, was a distraction. Josh Brown, former Husker and New York Giants kicker, admitting on several occasions to physically abusing his wife was a distraction. Giants head coach Ben McAdoo went so far as to say, “Each and every week, it seems like there is something we’re talking about other than the game. That’s the whole league now,” as if a kicker beating his wife equated to talking about who a star player was dating or what a player had posted on social media.
“Distraction” has become an ugly word, tossed around in the hopes of sweeping an issue under the rug. If it takes away from the game, it’s a distraction that must be dealt with, lest we be torn away from strictly following the game and actually think outside the context of down and distance, points scored, yards allowed, etc. Distraction is something used to describe anything outside of football, which has long since been a distraction itself, keeping our brains busy from straining themselves too much with bigger problems.
Back to me for a second. Despite having reasonable options elsewhere, my college search didn’t last all that long. Part of me had always known I’d go to the University of Nebraska, and the rest of me decided it so when I figured out that I wanted to major in journalism. So in the fall of 2011 I moved into UNL’s campus as a freshman Sport Broadcasting major.
It lasted about a semester and a half. By the end of my freshman year I’d already pivoted away from sports broadcasting to broadcast production, and by the end of my second year I’d added a standard Advertising & Public Relations major on top of it. So in a strictly professional sense, I no longer had any sports journalism background of any kind.
I still loved sports though, and my love of college football was growing each season. I went to every Nebraska football home game my first two years at UNL. When I chose to study abroad in Lancaster, England during the first semester of my third year, I’d stay up until the early hours of Sunday morning watching primetime games happening over 6,000 miles away. I watched Jordan Westerkamp catch Ron Kellogg III’s Hail Mary from a phone screen in a flat-mates bedroom. I passed on the opportunity to go out with friends because the Iron Bowl was on, and instead of being drunk in a club I was screaming my head off at my laptop as Chris Davis ran back a missed Alabama field goal and right into college football lore forever. I was hooked.
I remember when football stopped being a distraction; stopped being my escape from everything going on outside of its rules and rosters and highlights. It was Saturday, September 10th, 2016. My dad had two tickets to the Nebraska game that day, a home contest against Wyoming, and asked if I wanted to go with him. He came and picked me up the next morning, and we made our way as close to the stadium before finding street parking (read as free), and continued on foot. By the time we got into the stadium and found our seats, the marching band was just beginning the national anthem. I watched as people not in their seats stopped and turned, removing their hats and placing their hands over their hearts, and for the first time ever I was asking questions. Why was it so important for these people to stop and turn, to pay respect for the flag? Why was it important for me to do it every time I heard the anthem? Why hadn’t I ever thought about this before? Are other people thinking about this? Should they be? Should I be? Why am I suddenly thinking about it now?
The last question was the only one that offered a concrete answer. I was thinking about it because a black NFL player decided to sit (and later kneel) during the anthem because he felt that paying respect to a flag would be paying respect to a country that was, in turn, showing him and people of the same skin color very little. I was questioning it because players around the league were voicing support for him and causing me to look inward and question something I’d never before thought about.
Throughout the game, even as Nebraska bungled their way through three quarters before blowing the game open in the fourth to win 52-17, I kept thinking back to the national anthem and what it meant. I was distracted.
The summer before I left for England, I was asked by a UNL grad student if I wanted to do any sports writing for a Nebraska sports website he ran. I’d started my own blog my second year of school, and while I tried to write about many things, I mostly just ended up writing about college football. I accepted for two reasons – the first was because while I had my reservations about covering sports professionally, doing so for free on my own time meant I could walk away at any point, feeling no obligation to do something I no longer wanted to.
The second was because I enjoyed being able to talk and write about something as non-serious as sports. As with every college student on every college campus in the country, I was being exposed to more serious adult things as I got older, and I never cared all that much for them. I remember following the 2012 presidential election, but not really paying attention. I remember people arguing relentlessly over issues and parties and all I could think of was how tiring that must have been for them. I had no need to take part though; I had college football, and as more of my friends become more involved with politics and world issues, I became involved with advanced stats and team rankings.
I eventually cut ties with the website I was making content for, but I never stopped making content. I started my own blog, again with the hopes of writing about many things and eventually only writing about college football. Yet again I was asked if I wanted to write for a website, and yet again I accepted. I wrote about things like, “What if the top 25 teams ran for president” and “where are Nebraska’s former offensive coordinators now”. It was pointless and dumb, but also fun and lacking any hint of seriousness. It was an escape from the goings on of the outside world. At least, it used to be.
It only took two more weeks after that Wyoming game for the national anthem protests to hit the college game, at least, so that I had noticed. When Michael Rose-Ivey, DaiShon Neal, and Mohamed Barry knelt during the anthem prior to a September game at Northwestern’s Ryan Field, it brought that same dialogue and conversation to a slightly different platform.
It brought the same ugliness, too. Rose-Ivey said later in a statement that social media threats toward him after the protest had ranged from calling him the n-word to saying he should be lynched. It was a special type of ugliness that’s inexplicably becoming more and more common in America these days – a particularly emboldened type of hate that’s been magnified by hatred and bitterness and contempt.
But worst of all, it’s been magnified by silence; by those that do nothing. I didn’t write or say a thing after the Rose-Ivey incident, despite having the platform (albeit a small one) to do so. I pretended that it was because speaking out against the type of racist hatred and bile being spewed toward him, his teammates, and other anthem protesters should go without saying – obviously it’s wrong, such a thing shouldn’t even have to be said. I convinced myself that it was because, at the time, I had imposed a restriction on myself to not write anything Nebraska related for the year. I succeeded, but at a cost.
The reality wasn’t even that I wasn’t sure I could find the words. I’m still not sure I have. But I feel like if it’s really something you feel like you need to speak out against, you’ll use any words that come to you, even if they’re simple. As I watched white nationalist protesters descend on Charlottesville, Virginia mere weeks ago, I struggled to find the words to describe how I felt or what I was seeing, but I settled on one, simple thing: “This is wrong.” It wasn’t wildly intellectual or ground-breaking, but I felt it to be right and felt like it could, at least crudely and simply, convey what I thought.
No, the truth as to why I didn’t say anything then was because I was worried about sacrificing the sanctuary of football – of letting the distractions in. If I wrote about it and acknowledged that something bigger than football can exist through it, and use it to peddle bigger and scarier thoughts and questions, then I’d lose the game I grew up loving. I’d lose the ability to escape into this cocoon of big plays and fun moments and all that would be left is more adult discourse, and while that line of thinking is probably not uncommon, it’s a ridiculous one.
Pretending that, by letting athletes use their platform for a greater good and by allowing football to make way for larger conversations and purposes, the sport will lose all of what makes it great is a hilariously childish notion. It insults the idea that people can come together around something, enjoy it, and find themselves a part of a much greater discussion and purpose in the process. It minimizes those who participate in, follow, and keep track of the sport. It reduces them to being one-dimensional; incapable of both partaking in a larger discourse and enjoying the things they love about the platform it’s hosted through. It’s stupidity. And it’s wrong.
Tomorrow, August 26, 2017, college football returns. It’s also one year, to the day, since the photo of Colin Kaepernick sitting for the national anthem became a national talking point. There’s been lots of noise; incoherent yelling on both sides. So much so that it seems as though adding yet another voice to the fray would only make the two sides more divided and unintelligible from each other. But I’ve seen what staying silent breeds, and am beginning to understand that we can’t continue to hide under the umbrella of sports because we’re uncomfortable talking about issues.
Tomorrow, college football returns. I’ll be happy for the endless weekend tailgating, game watching, and highlight enjoyment. I’ll stress over rankings and stats and which team “ain’t played no-damn-body”. I’ll argue over things as pointless as which team is overrated and as important as the increasing activism by athletes. Ultimately, I’ll be sad when, in January, it ends again.
I’ll be a lot of things. But I won’t be silent.