You Can Say Anything You Want, but ...tags: Colin Kaepernick; Curt Schilling; Muhammad Ali;Curt flood
Murray Polner is the author of No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran, Branch Rickey: A Biography, and co-editor of We Who Dared Say No To War.
Former second round draft choice and ex-San Francisco 49er QB Colin Kaepernick, who once led the team to a Super Bowl, can't find a job today because he protested racism in this country by refusing to stand for the playing of the National Anthem. No job even as a backup QB on one of the NFL's mediocre teams. His sin? Ostensibly, it was refusing to stand for the anthem and thereby confronting the all-powerful NFL's insistence that the USA, the NFL and its 1% owners are one and the same. Only the distant, under-reported Canadian Football League has shown any interest in him. Canadians also have a Bill of Rights but because I once taught in a Canadian university I can say that they rarely have to be reminded that an open mind is the best mind.
Much the same is true with baseball, the other major sports behemoth. Curt Flood a St. Louis outfielder, an All -Star and Gold Glover, famously refused to bend and would not accept a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies in 1969. In a direct challenge to baseball's revered and set-in-stone reserve clause, which tied players to their clubs, granting then few career options, Flood sent a letter to Bowie Kuhn, the Baseball Commissioner, saying, "I do not regard myself as a piece of property to be bought or sold." Insofar as I know, just two former players, Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg, publicly defended him even as few players, black and white, during the Civil Rights Era, fearful of losing their jobs, dared not take sides against the owners. Flood received his share of death threats and denunciations for endangering America's Game and never found any job openings after that. Skipping 1970, he played in only 13 games for Washington in 1971.
The celebrated rebel, Muhammad Ali, was revered only after he was unanimously absolved by the Supreme Court. Still, two fearless athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their clenched fists against racism at the Mexico City Olympics, were roundly condemned and were never accorded much respect or honor then or in their later years. On the right, Curt Schilling, an outspoken conservative and first-rate pitcher, received no support from outraged liberals when he backed George W. Bush for the presidency in 2004 or rejected evolution and promoted other right wing positions, so offending his TV employers that he was fired.
I'm a veteran, certainly no hero, but I do like attending or watching Memorial Day celebrations. Last May was no different as I viewed a televised NY Mets-Milwaukee Brewer game. The stands were draped with flags, there were repeated camera shots of military men and women in uniform and one of them sang Irving Berlin's trite pop song, "God Bless America," which has somehow become a backup for our atonal anthem. A sharp camera operator caught an officer proudly saluting a tune which was ancient history until Kate Smith was hired to sing it at Philadelphia Flyer hockey games. Later, the authoritarian George Steinbrenner made it a mandatory feature of the seventh inning stretch at Yankee Stadium. If anyone wouldn't stand at its airing, or of course, for the National Anthem – such as the Met's first baseman Carlos Delgado – patriots from the safety of the stands reviled them as turncoats and worse.
Still, I confess to naïveté because on this past Memorial Day I had hoped, as I always do, at least for a word or two, from someone on or off the playing field, with the backbone to say that this is a free country with real freedom of speech. That even people like Colin Kaepernick, Curt Schilling, Curt Flood, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, et al. should be free to say what they want and still be able to find work at their trade and mean it.
I guess I'll have to wait until next year.
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