(This was originally published August 2016.)
By not standing for the national anthem, Colin Kaepernick has disrespected the sacred ritual of football. The American concussion game is inseparable from patriotism. There has not been so much outrage since John Lennon commented that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.* Defenders of Christianity – as if Christianity needed to be defended against a pop-music star – organized burnings of Beatles records.
Two years after Lennon’s remark, at the Mexico City Olympic Games in the incendiary year of 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood, barefoot, on the podium at the medal awards ceremony. Smith had won the gold, setting a new world record, in the 200-meter sprint. Carlos took the bronze. Instead of humbly holding hands over hearts during the playing of “The Star Spangled Banner,” they each raised an arm, gloved hands clenched in fists, in what was considered to be a black-power salute. The silver-medal winner, Peter Norman, an Australian, did not raise a clenched fist, but wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his jacket, as did the other two. They were booed as they left the podium.
Smith and Carlos were pulled from upcoming relays and Olympic chairman Avery Brundage evicted them from the Olympic Village. Back home, both athletes, and their families, received death threats and had difficulty finding employment. They each played briefly in the NFL. Smith became track coach and taught sociology at Oberlin College in Ohio and later at Santa Monica College. Carlos was a counselor and track and field coach at Palm Springs High School.
Norman was allowed to stay in the Olympic Village, but was shunned at home. Although qualifying for the 1972 games, he was not selected for the Australian team. Norman’s time in the 1968 race, still stands as the Australian record. He died of a heart attack in 2006. Smith and Carlos gave eulogies and were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral.
John Lennon continued to have a successful musical career. A born-again Christian and rabid Beatles fan, Mark David Chapman felt betrayed by Lennon’s blasphemous remarks. On a night in 1980, Chapman waited with a loaded gun for Lennon’s return to his New York apartment building.
And Colin Kaepernick? Who knows? Outrage over a football player’s sitting down may tell more about us than it does about him.
* John Lennon: Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I know I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first – rock & roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”