San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick's decision to sit during the national anthem before NFL games this season drew immediate passionate reaction from fans, including veterans and military families who feel personally affected by the decision.
Kaepernick began sitting out the pregame anthem tradition during the team's preseason contests earlier this month, and last week told reporters he was doing so to protest racial inequality in America.
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he said. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
NFL officials and personnel offered a mixed reaction to the protest. His team issued a statement late last week calling the anthem singing "an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens." Several players said they supported his decision.
But others saw it as a sign of disrespect, not just for America as a whole but for the men and women who serve in the armed forces. Buffalo Bills Coach Rex Ryan told the Associated Press that standing for the national anthem is a way for NFL players to honor the military.
''You've got to look at the gifts that we have, the opportunity that we have to play a great game is through the men and women that serve our country,'' he said Sunday. ''And I think that's an opportunity right there just to show respect.''
In a statement the same day, Kaepernick said he has "great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country" and said the protest should not be taken as any insult to them.
"I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country," he said. "And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone.
"That's not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn't holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That's something that's not happening."
Keenan Reynolds, a former Navy quarterback trying to make the fall roster with the Baltimore Ravens, told ESPNthis weekend that Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the anthem is a protected form of protest.
"Obviously, being in the military, I'm proud of that position, I'm proud of being able to defend the country, so humbled [by] other people that came before me and gave their lives so I can play on the field and run around and we can live freely in this country," he said. "But like I said, that's his right, and he's going to do what he has to do."
Green Beret-turned-NFL long-snapper Nate Boyer, who was cut by the Seattle Seahawks during last year’s preseason, took to Twitter to express his view, saying "I will stand 4 this flag and our Anthem forever."
UFC cagefighter Tim Kennedy, a sergeant first class with the Texas Army National Guard and a former active-duty sniper, did the same, announcing that he "will never watch a @49ers game again," and labeling Kaepernick an "#idiot."
CNN host Jake Tapper posted a message on his Twitter feed from a Gold Star mother who expressed similar anger at Kaepernick, saying "my body is shaking and tears are running down my face" at reports of the protest.
"Shame on you," she wrote. "Shame on you for your disrespect towards those who are true examples of honesty, integrity, pride and leadership. Shame on you for disrespecting my son and his life. His sacrifice."
Dorian Majied, an Army Ranger veteran who served in Iraq, told the Independent Journal Reviewthat he understood Kaepernick’s intentions but disagreed with his decision to sit.
"He could write his congressman, he could petition, he could picket, he could join the service and actually fight for the rights he seems to think are not offered to him," Majied said. "His sitting through the National Anthem was a lazy lack of will and brain power."
"He made valid points, I’m not ignoring that there are still issues with race in America. However, he is ignoring the positive ideals of America that every colored person who has ever served, fought–while some died–for, by refusing to stand. Proper action is exactly that, action, not the inaction of not standing because he couldn’t think of a better way to protest."
Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander Brian Duffy said in a statement Monday that "the American flag and our national anthem stand for something, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States salutes all who stand with us."
While Kaepernick's off-field behavior has been polarizing, reviews of his on-field play have been decidedly negative, leading Fox Sports analyst Jay Glazer to predict a swift end to the quarterback’s time in San Francisco, independent of the controversy.
"Regardless of politics or not, he has a very, very big uphill battle to make this team," Glazer said Sunday during Fox’s preseason coverage. "I'd be shocked if he's on the 49ers by the time this season ends. … No political views, he just hasn't been effective. He's regressing as a player. I'd be shocked if he's on this roster by the end of this year. He may not be on it in the next two weeks."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.