To Whom It May Concern at the NFL:
Hi. My name is Rebecca Woolf and I am a mother of four living in Los Angeles. I am married to a passionate Jets fan, grew up surrounded by Chargers fans and am the mother of a very excited and newly minted Rams fan—who, as I type this, is helping his father organize this year's fantasy football team.
It has always been my understanding that athletes, specifically football players, are role models for the young people in our country, which is why I'm writing this letter. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's unwillingness to stand for the national anthem is not only patriotic, but a symbol of solidarity to THE PEOPLE—in this case, people of color who continue to be systemically oppressed, slaughtered and disrespected at every level and in every neighborhood in these United States.
The thing is, sometimes in order to show solidarity for people who are struggling, you have to turn your back on the ideals of others—not to disrespect them but to show respect for those who have been systemically disrespected. As a white woman, I will never understand what it's like to be a black man in America, which is why it's that much more important for me to listen, to learn and to stand up for Kaepernick's right to say THIS ISN'T RIGHT. And, I was disappointed to hear that you don't take a similar stance.
Role models are people to look up to. Role models are people who speak for those who cannot, who are unafraid to lose friends, fans, popularity in order to do and say what needs to be said. Role models align themselves respectfully with those who have been disrespected. Role models give voice to the voiceless, even it means offending a majority. Role models stand up to a system that will bully the entire schoolyard if someone doesn't risk doing SOMETHING.
This is what I want my children to see, to witness and admire: a man who is willing to risk his reputation as an athlete in order to make a statement and ignite change, a man who can say his piece, do his job and wake up the next day to do the same.
My goal is not to raise children who are the best in their profession of choice, but rather to raise children who stay true to their hearts and are fearless with their ethics, who are able to see the bigger picture with a willingness to risk reputation—and, yes, even their career—to do what's right, even if that means going against the team. The coaches. The owners. The executives who comment anonymously.
Rumor has it that Kaepernick's behavior has been a "thorn" in the side of the NFL, and I get it. I don't agree with it, but I get it. Distractions are the worst. Disruption is super annoying.
But not as annoying as being killed for being black in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Ijeoma Oluo, in her recent Guardian piece, writes:
"You can be a professional football player, an accountant, a politician, a teacher—if you are black, you cannot escape the harmful and even deadly effects of racism in America. Colin Kaepernick is black every minute of every day of his life, and his money and his fame will not remove that blackness. Nor will they keep him safe when he’s out of uniform.
"What Kaepernick has done with his simple protest is brave. He has risked his privilege, his fame and his very career to stand with his fellow black and brown people against the systemic oppression that is literally killing us. This is what team spirit looks like when you look beyond jerseys. This is what American values look like when you stand for all Americans."
I believe wholeheartedly in the power of protest—I always have.
Dissent was how I found my power as a young person, and building a platform without using it to stand on is, in my opinion, a completely worthless endeavor. I believe that everyone with a voice should be using it to incite change and open up much-needed dialogues. And as a parent and as someone who writes about issues that pertain to parents online, I wanted to let you know that Colin Kaepernick is exactly who I want my children to look to as a role model.
The people I most admire are those who stand up, who stop trident submarines with their bodies and rail against injustice with their minds and marches and fists to the sky. Sometimes, such protests yield tangible results; sometimes, the results are more subtle in their power. But anyone who has ever stood up for what they believe in—protesting with love, with peace, with bravery, in order to defend the rights of other human beings—I stand behind in solidarity.
I salute my great aunt for protesting Vietnam, a war she was wholeheartedly against—not because she was anti-America but because she was against going to war with Vietnam. One can protest American policy and still love and respect America. In fact, the two are one and the same. I get angry at my children, not because I don't love them but because I think they can be better.
My husband and I get angry with each other not because we do not respect each other as people but because things must change in our marriage in order for us to stick it out long-term. Dissent is key to a healthy relationship. Dissent is key to a healthy America. Dissent is key to our growth as a country and a more perfect union of human beings who are not doing their jobs. By agreeing to things we do not agree with, we do irreparable damage. To our souls. To our relationships. To our future.
Furthermore, the idea that all team players must be compliant is frightening at best.
Jose Vilson writes, in his must-read essay:
"What does it mean for a citizenry that uncritically demands patriotism from everyone in this country while simultaneously insisting this country is best for its freedoms? What sort of message does that send to our students? ...
"In our classrooms, students are constantly asked to think deeper about the presented information, but simultaneously, our schools are structures for American obedience and compliance. Saying the pledge of allegiance before any learning happens means that any learning from the end makes the pledger assume that the learning happening shortly thereafter is part of this set of lessons that is impervious to critique and dissent. Every book, every equation, every piece of work that’s provided by every adult in the classroom is not worth amending or correcting because these are all American, and, if it’s American, it can’t be wrong. Obedience. Compliance."
If my children were to refuse to rise for the pledge of allegiance because they didn't believe in its words and if that protest incited the hate I have witnessed over the last week, I would be writing a letter just like this to the principal, to the school board, to the state capital.
In the meantime, I will be watching this story carefully—pointing out to my children what real patriotism looks like: STANDING UP FOR YOUR TEAMMATES OFF THE FIELD, AS WELL AS ON.
My hope is that Kaepernick's "constructive patriotism" inspires others to step onto the platforms they have built with their fame and act similarly, and that we, as a nation, can recognize our blatant hypocrisy, our "racism masquerading as patriotism," as Marcie Bianco writes.
Bianco also went on to say:
"Some of the most cherished symbols of American patriotism are predicated upon moments of resistance, protest and revolution. One would then think that Americans would applaud and respect Kaepernick’s quiet statement instead of calling him a traitor. But in the land of the free, we still seem to value the symbols that represent America over the ideals that America supposedly represents."
Which brings me to Hamilton.
Like many other families, my kids and I are obsessed with the musical "Hamilton." OBSESSED. We love "Hamilton" because as well as being a love letter to America, specifically our founding fathers, it's also a celebration of rebellion as patriotism, of free thought as freedom. Alexander Hamilton personifies the American dream—a man who refuses to stand to the side, a man who is not going to throw away his shot.
In Kareem Abdul Jabbar's Washington Post piece, he writes:
"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 stance, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here."
I have great respect for anyone who has a platform they're willing to use to incite change and spark important dialogue. That, to me, is heroic.
That is the America I love and am proud of.
I guess I just want you to know that when I talk to my children about fighting for what they believe in and standing up for what's right, in spite of the ramifications, there is a man on the San Francisco 49ers I can point to as an example.
And his name is Colin Kaepernick.