NFL Player Russell Okung: “I initially doubted the merits of Colin Kaepernick’s protest. I was wrong”

October 14, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


From a reader:

On Wednesday, October 13, Russell Okung, an eight-year NFL veteran who plays for the Los Angeles Chargers, issued an open letter to his fellow NFL players calling on them to unify over the message that was started by Colin Kaepernick when he refused to stand for the national anthem in protest against police murders and brutality against Black people. (Okung’s full letter is available online here.)

Okung’s letter was a direct response to NFL president Roger Goodell, who sent out a letter to all 32 team owners stating, “We believe that everyone should stand for the National Anthem”; to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who said he would bench any of his players who refused to stand, and to Donald Trump, who has been tweeting attacks on the players who take a knee during the anthem.

Okung starts out by saying, “I initially doubted the merits of Colin Kaepernick’s protest and questioned his strategy. I was wrong. There is now no doubt in my mind that what he did last season was a courageous, prophetic, self-sacrificial act that has captivated a nation and inspired a powerful movement. If I had his cellphone number, I would tell him that.” Kaepernick began the protest last season when he was a San Francisco 49er quarterback—and this season, as a free agent, none of the teams have hired him.

In speaking about the current protests that are being made by players and teams in the NFL, Okung says that “As Kap’s message has now been distorted, co-opted and used to further divide us along the very racial lines he was highlighting, we as players have a responsibility to come together and respond collectively.”

NBC Sports reported that “Okung said he wanted to reach out to players because he feared the initial point of protests—racial inequality and police brutality—has been lost in the bluster of President Donald Trump’s speeches and tweets.... ‘I’m about shifting the narrative. We can’t be distracted by what he is trying to do,’ Okung said of Trump.”

Okung’s view is that the current situation—with players with some teams (in some cases including the team owner) standing during the anthem and locking arms, some staying in the locker room until the anthem is over, some taking the knee before the anthem and then standing during it, etc.—shows that “the will of the players who align with Kap’s message is being diluted. Rather than our collective voice prevailing in a way that spans the league.”

He points out to the players that the system of professional football has been designed to keep the players separated and divided while the owners remain unified in being able to have their interests served by the league. His letter calls for players to “transcend the ‘natural’ divisions that have been defined by the league and sanitized by a fictional narrative of competition above all else ... by open[ing] up a line of communication just between us, and be ready to respond with one voice as players.”

In September last year, Okung wrote a piece for The Players Tribune, “We See You,” in which he said:

The more I read about the controversy surrounding 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to not stand during the national anthem, and his efforts to shine a light on injustice in this country, the more I think about Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

In 1968, in the midst of heated racial tension, Smith and Carlos used their platforms to change the world. At the Summer Olympics that year, Smith earned a gold medal in the men’s 200-meter dash, while Carlos won a bronze, and during the medal ceremony the two engaged in a powerful demonstration. With the national anthem playing in the background, they displayed one of the most symbolic gestures in Olympics history: The two men each raised a fist, showing their commitment to the civil rights movement.

I’ve always wondered if, at the time, they believed that their showing of solidarity with Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, and the recently assassinated Martin Luther King Jr., would even make a difference. But, as it turned out, a simple act on the world stage would surprise many, and show that change was needed.

The two competitors inspired millions around the globe and shed light on the oppression experienced by African-Americans in the United States. Their punishment, of course, would be severe. Soon after they took their stand, Smith and Carlos were expelled from the Olympics and made into public enemies. At home in the U.S., they received death threats. A moment of solidarity almost immediately became a swift burden. But when asked back then why he sacrificed the glory of the Games after earning a medal, John Carlos answered: “I can’t eat that. And the kids ’round my block can’t eat it. They can’t eat publicity, they can’t eat gold medals. All they want is an equal chance to be a human being.”

The protest started by Kaepernick last season is at a crossroads, and Okung clearly sees that when he says, “We can either wait until we receive our respective marching orders, speak up individually, or find a way to collaborate and exercise our agency as the lifeblood of the league.”

He’s issued a challenge to the players to make a difference, to act in unison against racism and police terror, in the face of attempts by Trump, NFL owners and others to shut them up. It will be a very good development if these players take up this challenge.




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