Sports

Ruffin ’17: American heathens

By
Sports Editor
Friday, October 14, 2016

Colin Kaepernick is in the news again. It was announced Wednesday that the now-starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers has restructured his 2014 contract. The old contract had already given the team significant leverage with a five-year guarantee that only applies if he is injured, but this new contract eliminates the injury provision, allowing the 49ers to cut Kaepernick at any time over the next two years without owing him a cent.

Though the new contract could simply be business as usual for the NFL, it is hard to separate the timing of this restructuring from the good deal of grief Kaepernick has caused his team for the first two months of the season.

Since Aug. 14, Kaepernick has refused to stand when the national anthem is played before games. Kaepernick has said he began his protest to shed light on injustices faced by marginalized U.S. citizens, especially African-Americans, who are disproportionately affected by police brutality. According to Kaepernick, “People are dying in vain because this country is not holding (its) end of the bargain up, as far as liberty and justice, liberty to everybody.”

While the quarterback’s protest went largely unnoticed during its first two weeks, it has dominated many news cycles since, and not just in sports publications or sports radio shows. Kaepernick’s demonstrations have entered larger national discourse, earning segments in popular cable news shows as well as articles and op-eds in major publications.

Many pundits have spoken out to excoriate Kaepernick for an alleged lack of patriotism. In a segment on Fox News Channel’s show “The Five” that aired Sept. 6, show co-host Eric Bolling prompted his four other co-hosts to discuss Kaepernick’s protest. Perhaps the most striking and offensive moment in the brief segment was Bolling’s claim that Kaepernick had converted to Islam. Though Bolling’s co-hosts did not seem to be familiar with Kaepernick’s conversion, Bolling is not alone in his belief that Kaepernick has recently become a Muslim, as various members of the far-right media and blogosphere have also written conspiracy theories stating that Kaepernick’s protest stems from his identity as a Muslim.

Why would anyone contend that Colin Kaepernick — or anyone — is Muslim with the only substantiation being his refusal to honor the national anthem in the traditional way? Bolling’s assertion highlights the Islamophobic sentiment that to be Muslim is to be inherently un-American. Furthermore, conflating one’s religious identity with one’s Americanness undermines the central ideals for which our country strives.

It is a commonly held belief that the United States was founded as a nation with religious freedom and tolerance among its core principles. To support these claims, many look to the decisions made by the founding fathers to eliminate language and imagery that explicitly refer to Christianity from federal documents. For example, there is no mention of God or Jesus in the Constitution. But it is incorrect to assume that all citizens of the early republic subscribed to the idea that the Christian church and state should remain separate institutions because there were no explicit references to Christianity in these federal documents. While there is no mention of God in these federal documents, 12 of the 13 original state constitutions made explicit references to God and Christianity.

Furthermore, while there has never been an official religion of the United States, the idea of ethical Christianity has impacted the laws and morals of the United States since the days of the early republic. Just as early Americans were hypocritical and selective in their application of religious tolerance and freedom, the Islamophobic criticism of Kaepernick’s protest evidences the paradoxical nature of being an American. While religious tolerance is a central pillar of U.S. government, American history is littered with violations of that principle.

These definitions of American identity have historically been used to exclude and oppress non-Protestant religious identities. For example, Chinese immigrants were deemed un-American and denied citizenship with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act amid growing fear of Eastern religions by white Americans. A prominent advocate for the Chinese Exclusion Act, Senator James G. Blaine, wrote that the Chinese “reek with impurity” and were “sowing the seeds of moral and physical disease.”

Critics said Kaepernick had converted to Islam because his beliefs and the actions he has taken are considered to be un-American, and Americanness is perceived by many as inextricable from Christianity. Assuming Kaepernick is a Muslim is in line with the same sentiments that led to the legal codification of anti-Chinese discrimination and other hypocritical applications of religious freedom throughout U.S. history. While the language that is used may be different — heathen versus Muslim — the message that is being conveyed is the same.

Taneil Ruffin ’17 can be reached at taneil_ruffin@brown.edu.

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