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Is Colin Kaepernick the new face of American patriotism?

values & ideals

After the San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks refused to stand for the national anthem, other athletes and fans called him unpatriotic. But his protests could be the expression of active patriotism common among Millennials.

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick at a news conference after a pre-season game on Friday in Santa Clara, Calif. Mr. Kaepernick said Sunday he will continue to sit through the national anthem until there is 'significant change' to racial injustices such as police brutality.

Ben Margot/AP

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Many Americans stand during "The Star Spangled Banner" to honor the servicemen and women who have defended and, in some cases, died for freedom.

But, Colin Kaepernick says, to stand during the national anthem also ignores the country's oppression of blacks and other minorities. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback will continue to sit through the anthem in order to take a stand against the injustices he sees in America, he says. 

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Ever since Mr. Kaepernick began to commit this taboo form of protest Friday, some athletes, fans, and columnists have said the 28-year-old is unpatriotic. But Kaepernick's protest may show a different type of patriotism, one that has become more popular among Millennials than many that came before them: loving your country enough to question it. 

Kaepernick's protest has earned him sharp criticism from those who have dubbed his act unpatriotic. But he has also won respect, including from some who disagree with his tactics, including Fritz Polite, a professor at Shenandoah University and a US Army veteran who specializes in the intersection of sports, society, and business.

"He's actually hit a vein," Dr. Polite tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Monday. "What Colin Kaepernick elucidates is the flag represents certain unalienable rights and freedoms. 'I'm exercising this freedom. Now you want to tell me I'm unpatriotic. All I'm doing is all the rights and privileges people fight for.'"

Kaepernick's actions, perhaps unwittingly, are in sync with how many young Americans view their country. Millennials have been accused of being the least patriotic of any generation. There is a "generational gap in American patriotism," the Pew Research Center wrote in 2014: just 15 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds say the United States is the greatest country in the world, compared to about half of 30-to-64-year-olds. Fewer Millennials consider themselves patriotic, or, like Kaepernick, are inspired by American flag, according to the American National Election Study. But MTV found that's only half the story. 

"Millennials are as loyal to America as any generation. But they are redefining patriotism as an active commitment, rather than an unquestioned obligation," Stephen Friedman, president of MTV, said in a statement in 2014, when the television network released a survey on young patriotism. "American Millennials are asserting their beliefs through the fundamentally American acts of questioning, challenging and, ultimately, trying to make this country better."

MTV found 92 percent of Millennials support freedom of expression. Young Americans, the network found, are also twice as likely as Baby Boomers to feel more comfortable questioning their country, which it wrote reflects how they feel about their country: "proud, but hyper-aware of its flaws."

Kaepernick, too, said he is grateful for the free speech he enjoys in America, but has said the country must live up to the equality it promotes.

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Kaepernick first sat on the bench, rather than stand alongside his teammates, during the national anthem of a pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers on Friday. After the game, Kaepernick told NFL Media he sat to protest police misconduct and brutality.

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," said Kaepernick, who is biracial, and was adopted by white parents.

"I'll continue to sit. I'm going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed," he added in an interview with reporters. "To me, this is something that has to change. When there's significant change, and I feel like that flag represents what it's supposed to represent and this country is representing people the way that it's supposed to, I'll stand."

The National Football League (NFL) does not require players stand during the national anthem; it only encourages them to do so. The 49ers have treaded between praising the symbolism of the flag and respecting Kaepernick's right to "freedom of religion and freedom of expression," as the team said in a statement, a stance echoed by head coach Chip Kelly.

Moreover, Kaepernick didn't break any laws: the United States Flag Code just recommends Americans stand attention during the anthem, and place their right hands over their hearts, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution explains. Still, Kaepernick's conduct didn't sit well with other athletes, fans, or members of the media.

In a column for the Houston Chronicle Sunday, Brian Smith summed up much of the criticism of Kaepernick: calling him unpatriotic, while referring to his $19-million yearly salary.

"I guess Kaepernick doesn't understand that while he barely throws a football for a ridiculously rich living, there are underpaid U.S. soldiers scattered across the globe – multiple races, ethnicities, religions and sexes; bible-thumping and God-questioning – who would give up their lives without blinking to protect and preserve his," Mr. Smith wrote in a column in the newspaper.  

Kaepernick insists, however, that he meant no disrespect toward service members.

"I have great respect for men and women that have fought for this country," said Kaepernick. "I have family. I have friends that gone and fought for this country. They fight for freedom. They fight for the people. They fight for liberty and justice for everyone. And that's not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn't holding their end of the bargain up as far as, you know, giving freedom and justice and liberty to everybody."

One question that now faces Kaepernick is if he can translate his broad criticism into change. Muhammad Ali, for instance, called for the end to Vietnam War. Other athletes demanded equal treatment under the law during the Civil Rights movement. 

Polite, at Shenandoah University, would like to see Kaepernick start citing the incarceration and homicide rates of young black men. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, a football player on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, would like to see Kaepernick invest in the black community. 

"He should invest in education. He should invest in Oakland," Seferian-Jenkins told Monday Morning Quarterback's Peter King. "People have been standing up and saying things, but we need action."