Mental Health Matters: We can learn from Colin Kaepernick (opinion) |

Mental Health Matters: We can learn from Colin Kaepernick (opinion)

Andrew Whyman
File photo |

Maybe you’re Mom or Dad, sister or brother. Maybe an athlete or coach, maybe not. You love sports, particularly football and watching the game with family and friends on Sunday.

Or, you’re an average Joe who saw San Francisco 49er quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, take a knee during the national anthem, and then say, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

Love or hate him, Colin Kaepernick has ignited a firestorm of controversy. Who is this gifted, black, $114 million athlete anyway? An ingrate, a spoiled, rich young man who dishonors the American flag? Whose so-called stand against racial inequality is no more than the peevish self- absorption of a declining athlete masquerading as principled protest?

Kaepernick, a biracial black man, adopted by caucasian parents, was a 4.0 student and a brilliant fleet-footed gazelle of a quarterback with a rifle arm who led his University of Nevada team to glory and nearly landed the 49ers a Super Bowl championship.

And then, no longer the starting quarterback, he takes a knee during the national anthem at the start of the football season, and continues to do so even now.

Howling protests have erupted from diverse quarters, black and white, calling Kaepernick unpatriotic and a spoiled brat of an elite athlete who bites the hand of the very nation that has given him so much.

Kaepernick also has his defenders, some of whom support his right to protest, but not at the expense of dishonoring the flag or at the start of a football game.

Kaepernick is not the first preternaturally talented black athlete to protest the residue of that “peculiar American institution,” slavery.

Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League Baseball player, writing in his autobiography in 1972 after his baseball career was over, said, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world.”

Muhammed Ali, in addressing his refusal to fight in Vietnam, said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

In 2014, a number of NBA players led by LeBron James. together with several professional football players. wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during warm-ups to protest the police killings of unarmed blacks.

And Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, recently wrote, “What should horrify Americans is not Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated during the national anthem, but that nearly 50 years after Ali was banned from boxing for his stand, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequalities.”

I ask, why the furor, the disgust, the anger over Kaepernick’s protest? Some friends tell me that Kaepernick’s protest dishonors the flag and America, that it demeans and debases all we stand for as Americans. They say that people are paying to watch a football game, not a civil rights protest. And that Kaepernick’s behavior promotes dysfunctional individualism on steroids at the expense of team unity.

Others applaud. They say that patriotic Americans are obliged to remind us when we fall short of the Constitution’s demand that all citizens have the same rights and opportunities.

For me, there is no right and wrong here. But there is individual and historical memory. Kaepernick was born a biracial black boy and raised by adoptive caucasian parents, a psychologically compelling and complicated story in a fictional “post-racial” America.

Like all those who are born to, or identify with racial oppression, Kaepernick has a story to tell. That he chooses to tell it in his way should concern us less than the message he intends to convey.

America has evolved from its primal birth when blacks were the personal property of whites, but ugly vestiges of that unseemly past still haunt individual consciousness.

Racial bias still persists in employment and housing discrimination, government surveillance, mass incarceration, drug arrests, educational bias, felony disenfranchisement laws, infant mortality and even recent research in downtown Seattle showing that the first available cab stopped 60% of the time for a white student, but less than 20% of the time for black students.

Kaepernick’s behavior teaches us, if we are willing to learn.

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at

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