MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Moving to one of America's most popular pastimes now we're talking football. The regular season starts in two weeks, but what happened before a preseason game on Friday is grabbing headlines right now. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand up for the national anthem. After the game, he told reporters, quote, "I'm not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." The NFL has said in response that players are encouraged, but not required to stand for the anthem.
But, as you might, imagine Kaepernick's stance is getting quite a lot of attention from colleagues and fans alike. So we thought we'd call William Rhoden to talk about this. After 26 consecutive years writing his Sports of the Times column, he just decided to deliver his final regular column last month. But after three decades of writing about sports and activism in particular, we thought he was the man to turn to about this. Welcome back to the program, Bill Rhoden.
BILL RHODEN: Michel, it's a pleasure. It's a pleasure.
MARTIN: So Kaepernick is not backing down. He's been tweeting this weekend that it is his right and choice to stand up for people who are oppressed. It seems as though we've seen more of this in recent years. Do you agree?
RHODEN: I think I really started seeing it, Michel, after Ali died because his whole life, it seemed, the essence of his life was protest. And a lot of young athletes, particularly, are - start going back and they looked at his stand against the draft and that. And I think that a lot of - what a lot of young, particularly black athletes, saw is that typically money is supposed to empower you.
And I think with a lot of guys what started happening is that money began to weaken them because they were so afraid of losing it and having stuff taken away. And I think that when they began studying the lives of Ali and Curt Flood and these people looked back, they saw that, wow, you know, this actually empowered them. It actually strengthened them. It actually is why we're talking about them years later.
MARTIN: Both the NFL and the 49ers have issued statements saying that players have the right to not stand during the playing of the national anthem. Is this a change?
MARTIN: I think some people are intrigued by the league's response here.
RHODEN: Because, you know - listen, you've got a league that's made up of almost - in - NFL is made up almost by 78, 79 percent African-American men. That's the league. The NBA almost high - like 87 percent African-American men. So if you don't own - or you better tread lightly on this stuff because these are the guys that make your league. You know, I mean, what happens if you are perceived as trying to crush them? That's - that - I think that's the easiest way to drive people together, I think the easiest way - and listen...
MARTIN: Well, but you wrote about this yourself in your farewell column for The New York Times in July. You wrote about Jim Brown, who was 29 years old in July of 1966 when he announced his retirement from the Cleveland Browns because then owner Art Modell had said to him if you don't come back from making this movie, I'm going to fine you. So from the movie set, he had a press conference announcing his retirement.
MARTIN: So it seems that that was a very different era.
RHODEN: Yeah. I mean, and it was also Jim Brown, you know. And a lot of people, including me - I was only 15, and you looked at that and said, wow, man, the fact that he would stare down an owner. But he was an outlier. In other words, that was way outside the norm, but look what happened to that. That was with '66. Next year '67, Ali steps back from the draft. '68, Smith and Carlos' Mexico - '69, Curt Flood. So I think that that was - if you want to say - if you want to look at sort of the beginning of that kind of - but those people were - and each one of them paid a tremendous price.
MARTIN: You talked about the consequences that a number of visible black athletes have faced when they made political statements. In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted. In 1968, Tommie Smith and John Carlos celebrated winning gold and bronze medals at the '68 Mexico City Games with a silent protest on the victory stand. What were the consequences that they faced?
RHODEN: Well, for Ali, first of all, he lost his title. He lost his belt. He lost his source of income. He wasn't - he didn't fight. There he is, I think it was three, four - well, he just could not earn a living beyond being demonized. Curt Flood will never get into the Hall of Fame for standing up against Major League Baseball, never.
MARTIN: He refused to trade in 1969.
RHODEN: Yeah. In '69, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, and he said I'm not going. I'm not a piece of meat to be traded.
MARTIN: Tommie Smith and Carlos...
RHODEN: Tommie Smith and Carlos couldn't find work, were demonized. You know, John Carlos' wife - there was so much pressure. I mean, she committed suicide. There were other things, but it was so much pressure. Tommie Smith couldn't find work. And again, they were demonized. There was just all kinds of...
MARTIN: They were essentially blacklisted.
RHODEN: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, essentially.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, does Colin Kaepernick have a history of using his platform to express political points of view? I mean, a number of people have taken note that LeBron James in recent years, for example, has made a number of gestures to express his concern around certain issues. Does Colin Kaepernick have a reputation for doing that and is this new for him?
RHODEN: This is new.
MARTIN: And why do you think - why him and why now?
RHODEN: I think this is new, and I think sometimes everybody has their epiphany at different times. I think part of it is that he looked at LeBron - what LeBron had done. I think he looked at other athletes. Also, I think his situation in San Francisco which is somewhat ambiguous - I think that he was gold - remember he was the golden boy the first two, three years. And suddenly when you've become the golden boy, then the rug is pulled out from under you. Then you think about a whole lot of realities. You think about everything from they love me when I'm on top. Now I'm not. So I think a lot of things, but personally whenever you wake up, whenever you smell the coffee, I'm for it. Just smell the coffee at some point (laughter).
MARTIN: That's Bill Rhoden. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. You will have certainly recognized him from his 26 years writing the Sports of the Times column at The New York Times. He was at The Times for 35 years in all, just turned in - hung up his spurs, as it were, just last month. And apparently we'll hear from you from time to time, we hope, Bill Rhoden.
RHODEN: Absolutely (laughter).
MARTIN: Thank you so much for joining us.
RHODEN: Thank you, Michel. It's been a pleasure.
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