In Good Conscience

Kaepernick makes a stand by kneeling

Every man's, or woman's, conscience is his or her own affair. But when a sports star chooses to give rather than just take, the world tends to question the motive.

I think of Juan Mata pledging 1 per cent of his super salary to charitable causes - and Mats Hummels at Bayern Munich following suit. Imagine if all the world's footballers did the same, they could sustain a small nation without feeling the pinch in their own lifestyle.

It doesn't have to be just money. Years ago, Billy Bremner slipped into a Leeds hospital - more than once - when doctors and parents of a comatose child asked him to speak at the child's bedside.

The hope was that the former Leeds United captain's distinctive voice might trigger some response.

Once, at least, it worked. I heard about it, and asked to interview him.

"Aye," said Bremner, "but you cannot put the hospital stuff in the paper."

The nub of his protest mirrors the Black Power stance at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City...

Passive protest, powerful yet silent, was their way.

Passive, anything but silent, is Kaepernick's. He appreciates the consequences, even to the point of there might be a bullet for him some day.

It took persuasion. There was some repercussion when the article appeared and Bremner felt inundated with requests from hospitals. He blamed me for damaging his hard-man image, and I admit this was sometime before I went within kicking distance of Scotland's fiery leader.

Seriously, though, being mean to be a winner on the field was the polar opposite to the nature of the man off it. He was not concerned what people felt about him, but he was fearful of the presumed power, and the expectation, that came with it.

Bremner, alas died of a heart attack before his 55th birthday.

Wee Billy is glorified in the phrase "10 stone of barbed wire". Today in America there is a sportsman who dwarfs Bremner for size, earning power and public polarisation.

Colin Kaepernick is a quarterback where Bremner was a midfield dynamo. Kaepernick stands 1.93m and weighs 104kg, whereas Bremner was 1.66m and 63kg.

But Kaepernick is unemployed. At 29, and rated among the top quarterbacks in an era when there is a dearth of them, he isn't wanted by any of the 32 National Football League (NFL) franchises.

Why? Not, for sure, because of his ability.

Not because of his colour because it is reckoned that 70 per cent of the 1,700 players in the league are black or, like Kaepernick, of mixed parentage.

And certainly not because of his charitable giving because Kaepernick pledged last September to give a million dollars to charities - and has kept to his word at US$100,000 (S$134,300) per month.

When he made the pledge, he was in the middle of a six-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers potentially worth US$126 million.

So sharing his windfall with causes of his choice was affordable, maybe even a tax write-off.

Remembering where he came from is part of what makes him what he is. Kaepernick was born to a white woman and a black man. His father disappeared shortly after his birth, his mother put him up for adoption, and the wonderful couple who made him part of their family, the Kaepernicks, gave him a middle-class lifestyle and clear values.

He was successful in the classroom and on the sports field, the all-American dream.

But what he did last September alienated him from some (including Donald Trump), and afforded him cult status to others (heavily including the poor and disenfranchised, and especially the people of African-American heritage).

What he did was to sit down during the playing of the American anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, before games. When critics accused him of desecrating the military who died for that flag, Kaepernick made a concession.

He knelt, rather than sat, during the anthem.

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour," he told reporters last year. "To me, this is bigger than (American) football. It would be selfish on my part to look the other way.

"There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

Mr Trump picked up on Kaepernick during his canvassing to be President. "Your San Francisco quarterback," he said, "I'm sure nobody ever heard of him, right?"

He went on to guffaw: "If NFL owners were not hiring this guy it wasn't because they were afraid of getting a bad tweet from him, it was because good folks actually like it when people stand for the American flag."

Kaepernick's reasoning takes longer to digest than Trump sound bites. "He says make America great again," the quarterback told journalists. "Well, America's never been great for people of colour."

Americans, he said, have the right to stand before the flag, or choose not to because military personnel fought to give them that right.

The nub of his protest mirrors the Black Power stance at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, where sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their hands with black gloves on the rostrum.

Passive protest, powerful yet silent, was their way.

Passive, anything but silent, is Kaepernick's. He appreciates the consequences, even to the point of there might be a bullet for him some day.

"I'm not concerned," he answered. "If that happens, it proves my point."

He said that to become a lawyer or a cosmologist entails eight years of study. To be a cop given only six months' training and a loaded gun out on the streets to protect people was, he argued, insane. He talked of white cops murdering black citizens and not being held accountable.

Many Americans, including some in the White House, don't wish to hear an NFL hero spell that out. Kaepernick takes the consequence. He is a "free agent" shunned by every NFL owner.

Some would rather pay a wife batterer or a convicted drug cheat. Kaepernick is untouchable.

His US$100,000-a-month pledge continues. He donates to human-rights causes, to education, to research into heart disease that killed two babies born to the parents who adopted him.

A big man, possibly an endangered man. And certainly an American who makes you think.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2017, with the headline 'Kaepernick makes a stand by kneeling'. Print Edition | Subscribe