COLUMN: You Can Knock Colin Kaepernick; Don't Call Him Un-American

August 27, 2016, 11:40 PM

— -- Colin Kaepernick stood tall while sitting down, which is not an easy thing to do. In fact, what he did in benching himself for the national anthem on Friday night was the hardest thing he could possibly do.

The easy thing? That would be standing silently with his teammates on the San Francisco 49ers sideline, cutting against the grain of his conscience. Nobody would've known the difference. Nobody would have reason to challenge his patriotism, to call him all kinds of nasty names, and to remind him, by the way, that he has devolved into a lousy quarterback who should be spending more time with his playbook anyway.

But he planted himself among the Gatorade buckets, understanding that in an age of 24/7 surveillance, he would be outed soon enough. Kaepernick didn't strike the kind of dramatic pose made by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City, and that was OK. He made his statement loudly and clearly.

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media's Steve Wyche, confirming Pro Football Talk's original report. "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."

An unscientific survey of Twitter reaction from players, fans and observers offered more evidence that the country is divided, perhaps still broken, along racial lines. This emerged as the one undisputed truth about a story that will have legs as long as the quarterback doesn't use his during the pregame anthem:

Kaepernick is a 28-year-old biracial man who was raised by the white parents who adopted him, and who believes he can no longer remain silent in a country where young, black men are too often shot by overheated cops, and where blacks are forever asked by whites to rise above obstacles that whites themselves created.

African-American athletes are often asked (unfairly, perhaps) to speak out on social issues and, well, Kaepernick just did. If you don't like what the man did or said, that's your prerogative. But telling him that what he said and did was un-American is to lose sight of what it means to be an American.

In some corners of the globe, Kaepernick might face prison time or worse for publicly "disrespecting" his country. Only the quarterback didn't disrespect the United States. While pointing out its fatal flaws -- socioeconomic and justice systems still tilted against African-Americans after all these years -- Kaepernick unwittingly reminded the world that the U.S. is still a pretty damn good place to live.

His team released a statement praising what the anthem represents but recognizing that Kaepernick's boycott matched up with "such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression." His league said players are encouraged but not required to stand for the anthem. His coach, Chip Kelly, said he had no right to tell any player how to honor, or not honor, his country.

This is what American servicemen and women have defended here and abroad -- Kaepernick's right to sing the national anthem at the top of his lungs, and to refuse to honor it altogether. As long as he's not interfering with his teammates' right to make their own red, white and blue choices, what's the problem here?

But yes, people had problems. A lot of people. Matt Hasselbeck, former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst, tweeted this of Kaepernick's move: "Easy way to make sure you're NOT the starting QB on opening day. #Sept. 11."

On the job front, perhaps some broadminded Niners players, coaches and executives were less concerned with the real-world "distraction" they'd have to deal with and more impressed by the fact Kaepernick showed some courage and leadership at great personal risk. "If they take football away, my endorsements from me," Kaepernick said, "I know that I stood up for what is right."

On the Sept. 11 hashtag front, I remember standing near the smolder at Ground Zero when an African-American cab driver from Queens told me he believed the terrorist attacks would spell the end of racism in America. He thought a common enemy would bring white and black together, and I recall thinking it was one of the nicest things I had ever heard. Sadly, it didn't prove prophetic. There remains a White America and a Black America, separate and unequal, and Kaepernick just became the latest public figure to speak out against the imbalance.

And now you're going to tell him to stick to football? To just worry about beating out Blaine Gabbert? To stand before the game and show proper respect to everything that song and flag represents?

You're going to try to scare him into submission with a biblical flood of tweets?

"Most of today's athletes aren't ready for the backlash," sociologist Harry Edwards told me at this year's Super Bowl. Edwards was a source of inspiration behind the 1968 Olympic protest. "And they forget they don't control that, especially in this age of 24-hour social media. This isn't the athlete revolt of 1967, when you were talking about a telephone and a single reporter at a major newspaper and then somebody else picking up the story. Today, you hit 'send' and you have an instant worldwide audience."

Kaepernick didn't fear that attention; go review his Twitter timeline, his retweets of issues in black and white. This day was coming for him, just as it was for many bold athletes who preceded him.

They say football builds character. In America, we should celebrate the fact that Colin Kaepernick just revealed his.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Ian O'Connor and do not reflect those of ABC News.