When sitting down is taking a stand

It’s the exception and not the rule when high-profile athletes take a stand against a perceived wrong in society.

Beginning in the 2004 baseball season, Toronto first baseman Carlos Delgado decided not to stand for “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch of Major League Baseball games. Instead, he would stand silently in protest in the dugout. Delgado felt the song represented a war he didn’t believe in.

At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, American sprinter Tommie Smith won the 200-meter race and fellow countryman John Carlos came in third. When the “Star Spangled Banner” was played, both gave the Black Power salute. The two were protesting the treatment of black Americans and other minorities in the United States.

In contrast, in 2010, Albert Pujols and his manager, Tony LaRussa, attended the “Restoring Honor” rally held on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The rally was organized by popular radio and television host Glenn Beck. A crowd of between 300,000-500,000 people attended with a goal to raise money for the families of fallen Special Forces soldiers and make a public expression of faith and patriotism.

Shawn Green chose religion over baseball starting in 2001. A devout Jew, Green did not play on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. An All-Star outfielder, Green sat out a game regardless of his team’s need for his bat or its position in a September pennant race. His religion was more important to him.

Those are just a few examples of athletes taking a stand, of course.

Fast-forward to 2016 and San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit down in protest for two preseason games because he said he didn’t want to show pride in the flag of a country “that oppresses black people and people of color.”

He altered his protest in the 49ers’ final preseason game, taking a knee instead of sitting. He said he took the new approach after talking to former Green Beret and NFL long snapper Nate Boyer in an effort to be more respectful to those offended by his protest and “not take away from the military.”

There are probably more reasons for athletes to not protest. The risk of protesting can hurt the bottom line, i.e., the loss of endorsement opportunities and even outright ridicule from the general public and professional colleagues.

Many respect Kaeper­nick’s right to protest, even if they don’t agree with how he’s doing it. Others openly question the way he chose to express himself.

“I don’t know if the most effective way is to sit down during the national anthem with a country that’s providing you freedom, providing you $16 million a year… when there are black minorities that are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan for less than $20,000 a year,” said Alejandro Villanueva, Pittsburgh Steelers’ left tackle.

Asked about the responsibility of an athlete to stand during the anthem, Villa­nueva, an Army Ranger before starting his NFL career, aligns with Kaeper­nick’s frustration over racial injustice, but not his forum.

Villanueva said Ameri­can minorities have more liberties than those in other countries, with freedom to speak their mind, largely because of the military fighting for that right.

For his part, Kaepernick plans to protest throughout the 2016 football season.

Before he first sat down in protest, Kaepernick ranked 120th in league jersey sales. He moved to No. 1 as the regular season was about to start. The 49ers sold more Kaepernick gear online in the week after he began his protest than the previous eight months before.

In conjunction with his protest, Kaepernick had previously said he will donate $1 million to various causes.

Bringing attention to a cause is relatively easy. Pro­ducing real change is difficult.

Equality has long been a rocky road in American history, and perspectives vary greatly when the topic is race or gender. One could argue that Kaepernick’s tactic was guaranteed to focus reactions on what he did, rather than get a discussion going. His use of a highly visible platform, like most protests, will raise more questions than provide answers.

Hillsboro resident Joe Klein­sasser is director of news and media relations at Wichita State University. You can reached him at Joe.Klein­sasser@wichita.edu.

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