When professional football player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest injustice, he probably didn’t anticipate taking a seat on the bench too. Christians, too, may endure professional setbacks if the choose to publicly condemn oppression.
Kaepernick, who just a few years ago started in a Super Bowl game, is currently unsigned for the upcoming football season. Many sports commentators have speculated that his languishing in the doldrums of pro sports has less to do with his performance on the field than off.
During a preseason game on August 26, 2016, Kaepernick refused to stand while the national anthem played. He didn’t do it to bring attention to himself; he did it to protest the killing of unarmed African Americans at the hands of those charged to serve and protect. “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed,” the quarterback explained.
The backlash against Kaepernick was quick and harsh. Coaches, players, and commentators condemned his demonstration as disrespectful and unpatriotic. They thought his actions were a distraction and put his team at risk of losing games.
But Kaepernick faced consequence much harsher than criticism. To this day, he remains an unsigned free agent. Several other quarterbacks with fewer accomplishments have been signed ahead of Kaepernick, leaving many to speculate whether his protests have made him untouchable in the league.
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a former NBA player who has been protesting the national anthem for twenty years said, “Look at all of what he has to lose by taking this position: his wealth, his endorsements, possible threats, the attacks against his family. He has a lot to lose.”
Kaepernick is not the first professional athlete whose career suffered after protesting injustice in America.
At the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, African American track stars Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos finished first and third in the 200-meter dash. When they ascended the podium to receive their medals, they each bowed their heads and raised one gloved-fist in the black power salute while the national anthem played.
The athletes made other symbolic statements on the podium, too. Neither of them wore shoes which represented the poverty of black Americans. Carlos donned a necklace made of black beads “for those individuals that were lynched or killed that no one said a prayer for, that were hung tarred. It was for those thrown off the side of the boats in the middle passage.” And each of them, including the second-place finisher who was white, wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges on their track jackets.
The next day the International Olympic Committee convened and stripped Smith and Carlos of their medals. Others condemned their act as “exhibitionism” and unpatriotic. Smith was discharged from the army. Reflecting on his own experience Carlos said, “Here’s a guy with income who can support his family, and then the next day he has no income and people start to walk away.”
The bombastic and charismatic heavy-weight champion boxer, Muhammad Ali, protested the war in Vietnam, and lost nearly three of his most productive boxing years.
Ali famously uttered the words, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” In saying this, he was highlighting the fact that his true enemy was the white supremacy in America that kept people of African descent locked in a status of second-class citizenry. In response, authorities stripped him of his passport and revoked his license to box. He did not fight from the age of 25 to almost 29. Those are prime years for any professional athlete, especially a boxer.
How many more matches might Ali have won? How much more legendary might his career have been? How much of his brilliance did citizens miss by boxing him out of the ring for exercising his right to protest?
Activist athletes who engage in non-violent demonstrations to express solidarity with the oppressed may forfeit their careers in the process.
If Christians wish to pursue justice in the nation, then they must be prepared to face professional costs just like Colin Kaepernick. While few people have as large an audience as a pro-athlete, they must assume that protesting may adversely affect their career.
The Bible says to “count the cost” of following Jesus on the path of holiness and righteousness, but this phrase too often remains abstract to believers. Concrete examples of the cost of acting Christle-like as a citizen may be losing a job, being passed over for promotions, and getting put on a list of people deemed “not a team player.”
Considering responsibilities like feeding a family, paying bills, and securing shelter not many people would have the courage to publicly protest like Colin Kaepernick did. But Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
If the cause is just then Christians can confidently stand up, or kneel, for the sake of change. The good news is that no one who suffers professionally for righteousness’ sake will ever be forsaken by the Lord. What is losing a job compared to gaining the kingdom of heaven?