Colin Kaepernick, the NFL and patriotism

Colin Kaepernick is starting again for the 49ers. Let’s check in with how some fans are reacting:

Hmm, seems just a little racist, no?

Shockingly, some fans did not take it well when it was noticed that Kaepernick was blaspheming the flag by not standing for the National Anthem. Combining his protest with how shitty he was last year as well as his injury history, I was certain he was going to be cut after preseason and unofficially blacklisted, even though he is better than a majority of backup quarterbacks. [1] The obvious reason is because Kaepernick was perceived by many, from team owners, to the NFL’s corporate sponsors, to idiotic fans, to be spitting in the face of the nationalism that is interwoven in the fabric of the NFL’s marketing and propaganda. The specific flavor of nationalism on display is sickening. Or, to quote Einstein: “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”

There are different degrees of nationalism as one can easily see on Wikipedia, some more benign than others. My wife and I traveled to Estonia last summer. There, I got the general sense that people were proud to be Estonian. For much of the last millennium Estonians have been under the heel of foreign rule. Their national awakening began as a fuck you to Imperial Russia and ended more than a century later with the incarnation of the Republic of Estonia. To be sure, their brand of nationalism is not without its unseemly parts. I was taken aback when one of the most chill dudes I met expressed a blanket distaste for his Latvians neighbors to the south (for reference, the state of Wisconsin is bigger than Latvia and Estonia combined by about 20,000 square miles). It’s that “othering” aspect of nationalism I find so toxic, arrogant and odious.

Turning back to America, as a nation state settled and formed by a melting pot of European peoples, an ethnocentric sense of nationalism (as in the Estonian example above) was completely unfeasible. We in America, a country whose existence necessitated genocide and was built by slavery, needed different #brands to get behind: freedom, democracy and liberty. Never mind the fact that these vague ideals have been historically unavailable to whole classes of people and remain elusive to many. Nevertheless, meaningless platitudes aside, America is in no way able to proclaim a monopoly on “freedom.” In the internet age, with widespread access to information, it should surprise no one that there are many other countries (not to mention contemporary hunter-gatherer societies) that could lay claim to being freer than us, as abstract as such a concept is.

I’m less concerned with nationalism as far as “liking where you live” or being proud of your ethnicity or citizenship than in how it’s manifested on a larger scale in terms of international relations – this is the type so prevalent in the NFL and its marketing. With regards to American foreign policy, there is little to be proud of. America has a rich, shameful history of interfering in countries that have governments they don’t like, resources they want, or markets they want access to. Much of it is completely unknown by the general football-loving public (i.e. imperialist adventures in the Pacific, the meddling in Latin America, etc.). [2] More recently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have undeniably produced an ocean of human misery and destabilized wide swathes of the world with no end in sight. Any idea that the US is or ever has been a “global force for good” is laughable, and it’s an idea shoved down the throats of NFL fans ad nauseam.

The various ways the NFL intersects with nationalism are too numerous to detail here except to note that one of the more disgusting underlying themes is how the former utilizes the latter for vast profit. After 9/11, the NFL’s efforts to ramp up their preexisting patriotic fervor is best encapsulated by the following research-based quote: “[there] is strong evidence that level of involvement in masculinist sports on television is robustly associated with strong feelings of patriotism and with support for the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Bush doctrine of preventive attacks.” [3]

I’m not sure there’s much of an overlap in a Venn diagram of football fans and Freethought Blog readers, so I wouldn’t think anything I’ve written is too controversial. It should be apparent by now that I am a fan of football. Blind loyalty to sports teams is about the only form of tribalism I allow myself and I loathe the omnipresent intrusions of jingoist propaganda into football. It’s no wonder the NBA is far more popular internationally while the NFL lags hopelessly behind. I’m fortunate enough to go to games once a year. As grateful as I am, I will always hate being subjected to aircraft flyovers, gargantuan flags covering the field, fabricated military family reunions, and placards on every seat that, when held up by everyone, has some bullshit tribute to American militarism. I often wonder if I’m the only one who ponders the absurdity of dipshit Americans wildly cheering Black Hawk helicopters overhead in contrast to, say, a Yemeni farmer cowering in abject terror at the sight or sound of aircraft, knowing it may be American and capable of killing them and their loved ones.

Overall, is it too much to ask for the NFL to let me watch humans bashing each other into early dementia in peace?

I purposefully neglected discussing Kaepernick’s rationale for his protest because I wanted to focus on the broader themes of nationalism and the military-football complex. [4] Suffice it to say I don’t think such themes bode well for his continued employment if he performs anything less than mediocre. I’m not very interested in whether or not millionaires are justified in symbolic activism [5] and refuse to take seriously the childishly simplistic idea of disrespect to the flag/military/country. Teams will happily employ scumbags, rapists, domestic abusers, and animal murderers so long as they’re good enough to justify the negative PR their signings entail, with their idiot fans in tow willing to excuse, deny or justify their transgressions. But will teams continue to employ an ungrateful, pissing-on-the-graves-of-veterans THUG with an afro and numerous tattoos whose best days are possibly behind him? We’ll find out in the off-season if his play continues to lag. Until then, I’ll be rooting for him, even though he has a history of destroying my beloved Packers.


  1. My pessimism has proven to be premature. There are several factors, not the least is the fact that many rallied behind him, which has unfortunately culminated in a multitude of limp, brand-conscious displays by other players:
  3.; A more extensive study can be found here: 
  4. I also neglected to reflect on the disgusting racism seen in the video above. My analysis: it’s bad and depressing
  5. This is a good perspective: 


  1. anat says

    Are you familiar with Scott Atran’s work on terrorists in general and Islamic terrorists in particular? One of his key findings is that male bonding by participation in sports is an important factor in these men’s identification with their movement too.

  2. says

    The NFL is bad now though. The only reason most people watch it is because they bet on it or for fantasy. Don’t be so ignorant, stop promoting something you write against.

  3. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To OP

    It’s that “othering” aspect of nationalism I find so toxic, arrogant and odious.

    IMHO, it’s practically impossible to have one without the other, and that is why I generally take a (verbal) shit on all things nationalism and patriotism.