This November Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who knelt during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, was named Citizen of the Year by GQ Magazine. The decision was a controversial one: many of Kaepernick’s media critics lambasted GQ for the award while his supporters embraced it. Todd Starnes of Fox News went so far as to label Kaepernick “coward of the year” for his actions.
While I agree with GQ’s decision to honor Kaepernick as Citizen of the Year, for Americans to straightforwardly celebrate or decry the award does a disservice to the narrative that Kaepernick set out to disseminate when he first knelt over a year ago. Kaepernick’s award presents a moment for Americans to briefly suspend their judgment of him as an individual and reflect on what it means—or what it ought to mean—to be a citizen in this country.
So, what does it mean to be a “citizen” anyway? At its core, citizenship in a democratic nation such as the US grants rights: to freedom of speech, of thought, of association, of religion, and so on. Citizenship also imposes responsibilities: to uplift other citizens and communities, to participate in civic discourse and duties, and, if necessary, to take a stand (or a knee) when the promises outlined in citizenship are not being realized—sometimes in the face of great personal sacrifice and public contempt.
Kaepernick has not been a flawless citizen. His activism has been marred by demonstrations of his own shortcomings, like when he wore socks depicting cops as pigs, or when he wore a shirt with pictures of Malcolm X and Fidel Castro, or when he justified not voting in the 2016 presidential election by arguing that the outcome was irrelevant to systemic racial oppression. Kaepernick has in many ways been what NBC broadcaster Bob Costas termed an “imperfect messenger” for the movement that he set in motion because of these pitfalls.
What Kaepernick has done, though, is confront the reality of racial injustice and make it known that the promise of American citizenship is not being realized in minority communities. He has inserted himself and his narrative into our civic discourse to such an extent that the name “Kaepernick” is as controversial as “Clinton” or “Trump.” He has sacrificed his football career and previously spotless image in the service of a purpose greater than himself, a deeply patriotic act in keeping with the best political traditions of America.
Nobody has embodied the notion of citizenship in the past year on a national scale in American sports or in America at large than Colin Kaepernick. He should not only be considered GQ’s Citizen of the Year, but also our “American of the Year” too, in a time where the very concept of what being an “American” entails is an ideological tug-of-war unto itself.
Disagreeing with Kaepernick is not an excuse for any American to not acknowledge or learn from his profound act of citizenship. As one of my favorite sports media personalities, Stephen A. Smith, put it: “It is always a beautiful thing to challenge the culture [and] challenge the conscience of America, thereby reminding us of what we are supposed to be as a gorgeous mosaic that exists in the world.”
If you oppose Kaepernick’s cause or GQ’s decision, you must discover for yourself the reason why you feel that way—and whether your own beliefs are impeding your ability to embrace the burdens of citizenship the way Kaepernick continues to embrace them.
The featured image is licensed under Creative Commons. The original can be found here.
Aman Tiku is a second year majoring in history and political science. Last summer, Aman interned at the FDA working on social science research projects. He writes a column on political developments in the Asia-Pacific at the Gate, having lived abroad for much of his life as an American citizen. On campus, he also serves as a Staff Editor on The University of Chicago Journal of Human Rights.