When Colin Kaepernick takes a knee during the national anthem tonight, before the 49ers play the Rams in San Francisco, it will be the quarterback’s first such protest during the regular season.
Since last month, Kaepernick’s stance against oppression and inequality has both empowered and outraged Americans over what constitutes patriotism — and underscored the public consequence of not standing for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, who played football with Kaepernick in college, took a knee during last week's game against the Carolina Panthers — and was subsequently dropped from his sponsor, the Air Academy Federal Credit Union.
What’s fueling this national firestorm isn’t so much Kaepernick’s action as it is our collective reaction to it, the writer Avi told Westword in a phone interview last week from his Clark, Colorado, home. “I admire what he’s doing,” Avi, 78, adds. “I think it takes guts.”
The Kaepernick controversy recalls elements of Avi’s award-winning 1991 novel, Nothing But the Truth. In it, a teacher accuses ninth-grader Philip Malloy of “causing a disturbance” when he hums the national anthem. He continues for days, unapologetically, during a designated moment of silence. Malloy is suspended, and the repercussions are felt beyond his small New Hampshire town when the national media picks up the story.
“The student’s motivation is petty,” Avi says. “But what others make of his action is what the story is about.”
Whether an act of defiant boredom or civil disobedience, Malloy and Kaepernick are exercising the same freedom, if under wildly different circumstances. Reaction over the last few weeks to Kaepernick’s position – President Obama, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and Shaquille O’Neal have all weighed in – has only inflamed national tension and divided the public narrative over the First Amendment.
When Nothing But the Truth was published 25 years ago, numerous principals asked Avi if he’d based the story on a similar incident that happened at their schools. “In a funny way, to teachers it was not considered controversial, because they had dealt with something like this,” he says.
Today Avi leads about forty classroom discussions nationwide every year, via Skype. However, Avi says, when he appears in person, he positions himself out of view of students and teachers if the national anthem is played.
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“I may stand, but I don’t do the hand-over-the-heart stuff,” he says. “I find that hard to deal with.”
Avi notes how the public’s initial condemnation of Muhammad Ali over his outspoken protest of the Vietnam War changed over time: When he died in June, Ali was universally praised in retrospect. How will Kaepernick’s action affect his legacy? “He’ll probably get thrown out of professional football,” Avi says, “and he’ll be made an example of.”
“If they take football away,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in August, “I know that I stood up for what is right.”
Perhaps Kaepernick’s Twitter profile, which quotes Iain Smith, speaks loudest: “Do not underestimate the determination of a quiet man.”