Being a good police officer is one of the most difficult, dangerous, idealistic jobs in the world. The nature of police work is such that innocent people, including law enforcement officials, will sometimes be killed.
Within that framework, America has a problem. Some police shootings are unjustified. And a disproportionate number of these unjustified shootings have involved white police officers and black victims.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has intensified the national debate on this issue. His first open act of protest was to sit while the national anthem was played prior to an August 26 pre-season game against the Green Bay Packers. Thereafter, Kaepernick told NFL.com, "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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."
Kaepernick later modified his protest by kneeling on one knee instead of sitting while the national anthem is played. His protest is now being emulated by other athletes, in other leagues, and in other sports.
I'm conversant with the issues involved. Years ago, I wrote a book about Thomas Shea, a New York City cop who shot and killed a ten-year-old African-American named Clifford Glover. Shot him in the back. Later, as Muhammad Ali's biographer, I saw what one man can accomplish by standing up for his beliefs in the face of an unjust system. I was tangentially involved as an attorney in litigation against state authorities after two Jackson State College students were shot and killed by members of the Mississippi Highway Patrol in 1970. And in 1971, I experienced the criminal justice system in Selma, Alabama, firsthand.
Something bothered me when Colin Kaepernick began his protest. At first, I couldn't put my finger on it. Then I read what Jim Brown (one of the greatest football players of all time and an outspoken civil rights activist for decades) had to say.
"I would not challenge our flag," Brown declared. "I would not do anything that has to do with [dis]respecting the flag or the national anthem. I don't think it's appropriate."
I'm inclined to agree with Brown. Part of that sentiment springs from the belief that we need more unifying symbols in this country, not fewer. The national anthem, like the flag, has the potential to be one of these symbols.
I felt more comfortable with Kaepernick's protest when he chose to kneel rather than sit while the anthem is played. Sitting seems too dismissive, whereas kneeling is more respectful. And I can see the benefit in standing at attention with an upraised fist in the manner of Tommie Smith and John Carlos with its powerful imagery of speaking out for what is right.
Why is Kaepernick doing this? His detractors say that he's an unpatriotic second-string quarterback who's trying to draw attention to himself. But it's easier to attack Kaepernick than it is to constructively address the issues that he has raised. People who protested against the invasion of Iraq were attacked as unpatriotic too.
One might also question why playing the national anthem before sports events has become all but mandatory in the United States. We don't play the anthem before theatrical performances or concerts. And I haven't heard anyone question the patriotism of fans who start shouting halfway through the anthem.
Does it bother Kaepernick's detractors when, around the time the vocalist gets to the rockets' red glare, fans are screaming. "Go, Cowboys! F------, go!" Are they concerned that most telecasts cut to a commercial rather than televise the playing of the anthem?
That said; kneeling during the playing of the national anthem - like burning one's draft-card in an earlier era as a protest against the war in Vietnam - is only a symbolic act. Players who kneel and do nothing more have - in the words of Khizr Khan (the father of slain war hero Humayun Khan) - "sacrificed nothing."
Also, while kneeling during the national anthem might draw attention to the issue of unjustified police shootings, it doesn't apply real pressure on the powers that be. Like wearing a hoodie in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, it accomplishes next to nothing unless more is done.
It doesn't interrupt corporate America's cash flow.
So here's a suggestion.
Suppose Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers took the field a half-hour late for their nationally televised Thursday night game against the Arizona Cardinals on October 6?
Suppose Michael Jordan's Charlotte Hornets took the court a half-hour late for their home opener against the Boston Celtics on October 29?
There's strength in numbers. Team players who stand together have less to fear in the way of retaliation than athletes in individual sports.
If an entire team is thirty minutes late for the start of a game, would NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or NBA commissioner Adam Silver fine all of the players and risk a widespread rebellion from their work force? I don't think so. Goodell has enough image problems of his own at the moment. And Silver isn't about to risk the gains he achieved when he brought the guillotine down on Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling following revelation of Sterling's over-the-top bigoted remarks. Neither league wants that confrontation with its work force.
And there's a more radical alternative that the players can pursue.
Suppose the two teams that make it to the next Super Bowl threaten a work slowdown or the possibility of a last-minute refusal to play the game? Do you think that FOX Broadcasting Company, which is slated to televise Super Bowl 51, might take a second look at its institutional stance on the issue of police shootings if its telecast of the game were threatened?
Muhammad Ali gave up the heavyweight championship of the world for what he believed in. Professional athletes in team sports can give up a day's pay.
It might also be noted that the anti-war movement of the 1960s was fueled by outrage on college campuses. That outrage wasn't entirely selfless. College students in those days were afraid of being drafted. And I don't mean by the NFL.
College campuses have been relatively quiet in recent years because no one is being drafted to fight in Iraq. But that doesn't mean college students should sit on their butts. It would certainly get the attention of the powers that be if ESPN's telecast of the semi-finals and finals in the upcoming College Football Playoff was threatened.
What's the NCAA going to do about it? It can't fine the players.
Presidential election campaigns offer a unique opportunity to educate the public and engage in an intelligent dialogue on issues of national importance. That process has been sorely lacking this year, so other forms of expression (such as kneeling for the national anthem) have filled the void.
This leads to the most important thing that Colin Kaepernick and everyone else who's concerned about the road our country is taking can do.
I'm old enough to have lived through a time when Martin Luther King Jr, Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and others died so people of color could vote.
People who think there's "no real difference" between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are as ignorant as the people who thought there was no real difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore sixteen years ago.
Not voting is disrespecting the best of what this nation stands for.
Moreover, there are local elections across the country that will determine who appoints police commissioners, which cases are prosecuted, and who makes policy on law enforcement matters for years to come.
North Carolina is a crucial swing state. Is Carolina Panthers Cam Newton registered to vote?
Ohio is a crucial swing state. If Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James wants to make a difference, he should urge people to vote.
Colin Kaepernick should be telling people to register to vote.
The beauty of voting is that one doesn't have to be an elite athlete to do it. And anyone can work in support of a political campaign.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book - A Hard World: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing - was published by the University of Arkansas Press