Colin Kaepernick—the very mention of his name elicits strong reactions from football fans. Last August, as a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in protest of ongoing police violence against black men and women around the country. The decision sparked considerable controversy and has likely cost Kaepernick his football career.
Football season is now upon us, and while I do not intend to rehash all that has been written on the NFL protests, I must say that I find the knee jerk claim that the players protesting are unpatriotic disturbing. In Christian ethics, opposition and political protest are important ways of participating in the common good. They are methods utilized by Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, as well as, by the Solidarity movement in Poland. Catholic social thought (and St. John Paul II, in particular) understands opposition as an important component of solidarity.
In Poland, Karol Wojtyla actively opposed communism as a student leader, as a philosophy professor, and as Bishop of Krakow. He is famous for his support of the Solidarity movement as pope and his support of opposition to communism. St. John Paul II’s understanding of participation and the role of opposition is crucial to understanding his theology of solidarity, as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (SRS 38).
He understood that solidarity required a delicate balance between accepting the duties and responsibilities imposed by the community and opposition to unjust forms of exclusion and oppression.
For John Paul II, solidarity does not exclude opposition; it can mandate it. In Toward a Philosophy of Praxis, Wojtyla explains: “Experience with diverse forms of opposition . . . teaches that people who oppose do not wish to leave the community because of their opposition. They are searching for their own place in the community –they are searching for participation and such a definition of the common good that would permit them to participate more fully and effectively in the community” (49). Catholic social thought has long recognized racism as both a structure of sin and as intrinsically evil. Public opposition to unjust social structures should be seen as participation in the common good.
Professional athletes have long utilized athletic spaces to publicly oppose injustice. If we examine Kaepernick’s own explanations of his protest, a clear commitment to his understanding of the common good emerges. When asked why he was doing this, he replied, “People don’t realize what’s really going on in this country. There are a lot of things that are going on that are unjust. People aren’t being held accountable for. And that’s something that needs to change. That’s something that this country stands for freedom, liberty and justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.”
And how long did he plan to sit? His answer was clear, as long as the injustices persist; “When there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”
His protest is not a rejection of the community; it is a demand that the community be one of greater justice. His protest, like the protests of many athletes before him, is an example of opposition in service of solidarity. The national anthem and flag are symbols of the community and, as such, are a logical locus for calling the nation to more fully live up to its highest ideals. In the wake of white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, it should be evident to all that we still have considerable work to do in bringing about racial justice and dismantling white supremacy.
This preseason, Michael Bennett of the Seahawks, Marshawn Lynch of the Raiders, and a number of other players continued the protest begun by Kapaernick and others. On August 18, 80 current and former NYPD officers rallied in support of Kaepernick in Brooklyn. For his efforts, Kaepernick will be honored at the Smithsonian African-American History Museum as part of the Black Lives Matter exhibit. As NFL owners and fans consider his future in football, it is worth noting that instead of seeing his actions as unpatriotic, according to St. John Paul II’s theology of solidarity, his opposition one genuine avenue for advancing the common good.