American Like Football

San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (left) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem before a recent NFL game AP PHOTO

San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (left) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneel during the national anthem before a recent NFL game AP PHOTO

There may not be anything more quintessentially American than football. I think, more than any other sport, it captures the contradictions in our national identity.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick might not even set foot on the field this season, and yet he’s the reason there are actual news stories about which players are sitting, kneeling or standing during the national anthem before each game. He’s spawned a million hot takes about why he is absolutely justified or why he is a treasonous ingrate. Soldiers have died bot h for his right to sit and his obligation to stand, depending on whom you ask.

The conversation is supposed to be about race relations in America, but instead we’re mostly left questioning how the ideology of patriotism works in an industry as big and rich as this one.

Concussions — and a reminder of the great and terrible toll the game takes on players — re-entered the conversation when Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton got hit about eight different ways last Sunday and kept on playing.

Domestic violence and abuse is never quite out of the picture when so many tarnished stars take the field, past crimes and allegations set aside.

And that’s still not getting into the haywire behind the scenes, where players complain that the NFL ignores their labor rights with its arbitrary disciplinary system, where women are still a negligible presence in upper management (even if they are out in full force as underpaid, scantily clad cheerleaders), where billionaires alter the economies of entire cities when their teams move from place to place.

Then all of that is forgotten when the players take the field and perform improbable feats of athleticism, and we check our fantasy scores the next day with glee.

I’m not really criticizing football, though these are all grim facts of its reality that should not be ignored. It’s incredible, when you think about it — from a simple sport we Americans have grown a titan of industry, pumping billions of dollars into our economy and bringing joy to millions of lives.

And it’s not the same in baseball or basketball, which don’t dominate the cultural conversation in quite that way. We’ve gone so far as to develop farms for future players in high schools and colleges (sometimes even younger), so that we spend Friday and Saturday evenings watching the NFL players of the future pound it out before spending Sunday (and some of Thursday and Monday) with the professionals.

This is why Kaepernick’s choice to sit (and now, kneel) rattles so many people to the bone. This is football. This is the most American of institutions. Like standing for the anthem, you aren’t supposed to question it.

Until you do.