What The Paralympics and Colin Kaepernick Tells Us About Honouring War Veterans

by Christienna Fryar 

For sports fans in the United States, early September brings the return of football[1]: college football; high school football; and of course, the NFL. For all its fanfare, the beginning of the football season can be a fairly perfunctory affair.

636093166429164256-2016-09-12-colin-kaepernickThis season, not so much. From the moment journalists realised that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was remaining seated during the playing of the US national anthem at pre-season games, this football season has been much different. Kaepernick chose this form of protest against the flag and anthem to point out the wide gulf between the rights proclaimed by these symbols and the rights not granted to the victims of police brutality.

The subsequent outcry has been revealing; the first amendment right of free speech, that we’re told by people who in other circumstances would be quick to claim it, has limits. Peaceful protest – the kind they claim to admire in its purest, yesteryear form – can only happen when those in its vicinity say it can: never during a sports event; never in proximity to 9/11; never during the anthem.

The anthem that people chew gum during, shout and whoop at when the key points of “O” and “land of the free” come? The anthem that Michael Phelps laughed through just weeks ago? This anthem has now been deemed sacred, protest-free space?

As critics of Kaepernick scrambled to justify abridging his rights, many landed upon the idea that the anthem is played to honour our veterans. I am the daughter of a veteran, I grew up in one of the most military-centric regions of the entire county, and I was raised to stand during the anthem. But this was entirely news to me.

#VeteransforKaepernick brought together countless veterans who insisted that they had fought, in part, for Americans to have the right to protest, no matter how uncomfortable. But ultimately, it’s been to little avail. Megan Rapinoe, one of the stars of the US Women’s Soccer team and member of the Seattle Reign, joined Kaepernick in kneeling during the anthem (Kaepernick shifted to this gesture after conversations with veteran Nate Boyer). In response, an opposing team, the Washington Spirit, decided to play the anthem before the athletes stepped onto the field. The team statement framed her protest, again, as disrespectful to veterans.

Yet the great irony is that we’re a nation that performs the grand gestures of respecting and honouring our veterans, while at the same time doing little to care for them.

In the arena of sports, the gulf between “respecting veterans” and caring for them – or to put it more cynically, using veterans as an abstraction to get people to fall in line with a narrow version of patriotism – is especially visible right now. Because, in the US at least, the sporting event currently ongoing that features veterans is the Paralympics. Yet who’s watching?

In previous years, Paralympics coverage was nothing more than an hour to 90-minute-long recap shows, although this year NBC has taken them more seriously. The combination of reporters from the Olympics, and former Paralympians, has been excellent, subtly conveying the message that these are world-class athletes. Especially strong has been the discussion of classifications, with graphics demonstrating how athletes with different capabilities still compete within the same group.

Yet the Games are still flying under the national radar. They are on NBCSN almost exclusively, a channel that millions of families don’t have. They’re broadcast somewhat irregularly, rarely at the same time each night, or sometimes after midnight. And they’ve been competing with the US Open, college and professional football, baseball, the Premier League, and later tonight – during the Closing Ceremony – the Emmys.

elizabethmarks2016rioparalympicsday3fyev3o5wpkflBut surely we’d be watching, since we’re a nation that honours veterans? The entire country should be cheering on Bradley Snyder, the navy lieutenant who lost both eyes in Afghanistan. Or Elizabeth Marks, the medic who was injured in Iraq. So why does it feel like even Prince Harry seems to know and care more about these athletes than anyone in the “honour-the-veterans” crowd?

To be clear, veterans are not the only Paralympians who deserve our attention; all of them do. In addition, our nation does owe our veterans, especially at a moment in history when so few of us serve in the military. We owe it to them to be cautious about the wars we send them to on our behalf. We owe them the finest of medical care, rehabilitation, and support. We owe them opportunities to build successful lives no matter what happened to them in combat.

Watching and supporting the Paralympics won’t do all of that, but it too is a symbol of our priorities. Do we look our veterans in the eye, thank them for their service (if that’s your chosen response), and then support them in their future paths? Or do we instead turn away from them, pat ourselves on the back for “honouring them”, and then use their collective existence as a cudgel against others? The former choice honours veterans. The latter only exploits them.

[1] – Or what we in America call “football”.

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Christienna Fryar is a professor, historian, and pop culture junkie. She is from Virginia, lives in Buffalo, NY, and calls Durham, NC and London home. Twitter: @jamaicandale

olympics - Media DversifiedThere’s sport, and then there’s the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s an event like no other. Over the next few weeks this series, curated by Shane Thomas, will cover the medals, the nationalism, the competition, the corporatisation, the exploitation, and the sporting brilliance of Rio 2016.

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