High school football players have always had their role models. Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Doug Williams, John Elway, Emmitt Smith, Eli Manning, Brett Favre. The list is a very long one. But usually those role models are revered because of their gridiron prowess, not necessarily because of what they do on the sidelines.

This season though, they are following the lead of Colin Kaepernick as he takes a knee during the national anthem. Reports have surfaced of these kids kneeling in unity with the San Francisco 49ers quarterback around the country, making a statement about police brutality and the injustices faced by African-Americans when it comes to law enforcement. They call it “Kaepernicking”

In San Francisco, the entire team at Mission High made the gesture during the anthem recently. In Ohio, a high school quarterback was threatened when he did it, but he remained defiant amid racial threats. In other places like New Jersey, Alabama, Massachusetts football players are facing disciplinary action.

And apparently, New York Times columnist David Brooks thinks these young men are out of line and should be taught a lesson on “patriotism.”

In a Times opinion piece published Friday, Brooks derides young athletes around the country who are finding ways to connect through this small gesture of solidarity:

If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story. People will become strangers to one another and will interact in cold instrumentalist terms. 


First off, questioning authority is ritual in this country. It’s patriotism in action. It’s what America was founded on. Looking back to the American Revolution, colonials had a serious problem with what these students  are taught in their civics classes was “taxtation without representation.” It was one of many things they were not willing to stand for that was being imposed on them by the British crown.

If they’re not getting that from class, at least they can learn it from the “Hamilton” soundtrack.

So I find it striking that Brooks believes that not speaking out about human beings that look like them, that go to school like them, that but for the grace of God could be them, is a viable solution. That they should wait until people sort of just veer to their side. When is that supposed to happen? After their funerals?

He says that what will truly bring us together is standing as one and crooning the national anthem. He says they’d be “singing a radical song about a radical place.” But this place is radical because people have historically done what these kids are using their platform to do, not because they sat down, shut up and let White liberals take care of everything.

Brooks invokes Martin Luther King, in language that honestly seems more tepid than what I’m used to when he talks about things like behavioral economics or super PACs. He says King (because maybe that’s how he can relate to them, God forbid he quotes Kendrick Lamar), sang the national anthem and quoted the Declaration of Independence.

Now that’s true, but the “I Have A Dream Speech” was really one of the most radical things King ever talked about. Guys like Brooks seem to select the parts about that speech that they like. The parts that make them feel secure, thinking “there’s a Black guy who isn’t threatening and who’ll be patient while we get to him.”

We only tend to hear the palatable soundbites of that speech, but really it was ad libbed as part of a larger address at the March on Washington in 1963 telling America that it had not fulfilled its promise to African-Americans that had for generations toiled in fields, suffered in jails, fought in wars and been the subject of abuse, torture, degradation, rape and murder.

Probably the most poignant part of the speech was not him saying “I have a dream,” but this:

In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, Black men as well as White men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”  

If you think that’s off the chain, you should read “Why We Can’t Wait.”

So maybe Brooks should return his revisionist history book to the library of myth. Maybe he should step in to the reality of what Black boys – many of whom are the football players he’s criticizing — face every day, a one in three expectation to see the inside of a jail cell, a homicide rate as much as 12 times what it is in other developed countries, and their unarmed brethren being killed by police at five times the rate of unarmed whites.

This isn’t to say that every radical movement ever to rise in America was a good idea. I’d venture to say Jefferson Davis was probably off the mark when he united several states into a confederacy that intended to secede from the nation, for example.

A few years ago, Brooks’ former NYT colleague William Rhoden wrote a book entitled “Forty Million Dollar Slaves” in which he criticized professional athletes for not having the gumption to take stands on social issues, particularly when many of the youths that idolized them and brought clothes and shoes bearing their names were dying in the streets.

He said they had been socialized on a “conveyor belt” where they were taught simply to toe the line and not make waves. Apparently that has stopped with this generation. It looks like all it took to snap the “conveyor belt” was one professional athlete who has embraced a social sobriety and was willing to risk his endorsements (and maybe his place as a starter), in order to make a statement. Others in the NFL followed and that has trickled down to college and finally high school sports. Maybe Pop Warner leagues are next.

So no, the national anthem is not a “radical” song. Not for these kids. It may have been for Brooks. But if you want radical, check out Fats Waller’s “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue”; Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”; Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”; Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”; Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner”; Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”; Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”; Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”; NWA’s “F*ck Tha Police”; Tupac Shakur’s “Keep Ya Head Up; Eminem’s “White America”; and Kenrick Lamar’s “Alright.”

These I’ll contend are examples of radical songs for a radical country. But I’ll add one more lyric that Brooks won’t get and these kids won’t remember, but certainly applies to them:

With the rhythm it takes to dance through what we have to live through, you could dance underwater and not get wet (psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoolop).

Madison J. Gray is Digital Managing Editor of EBONY.com and JETMag.com and he still believes the Mothership is coming. Follow him on Twitter @madisonjgray.