Kaepernick’s Fearless Duane Thomas Stance
Colin Kaepernick,28 years of age and entering his third year in the National Football League, has the league standing on its ear. Practically every player, including some of his fellow San Francisco 49ers, is speaking out against his intentional failure to stand during the playing of the National Anthem. Kaepernick has vowed to sit during the playing of the National Anthem at the beginning of each of his team’s football games.
It is not the first time that a young Black athlete, in the third year of his professional football career, has chosen to make a statement about the mistreatment of Black people in the USA. In 1971, Duane Thomas in the third year of a contract with the Dallas Cowboys, that would have paid him a measly $20,000, refused to report to Cowboys’ training camp. Thomas questioned the unfair negotiations between himself and the “take it or leave,” posture of the Cowboys. The team determined if he would work in the league and the rate of pay he would earn on that job. Thomas felt powerless to control his professional life.
The Cowboys and all of professional sports, then and today, largely exploit their labor by using a business model similar to that of southern plantation owners in another era of American history. They pay the minimum amount they can get away with for their laborers, and keep literally billions of dollars for themselves.
Thomas was traded to the San Diego Chargers before the ’71 season. They offered to pay him about $85,000 per year for the next three years. A significant jump, but by this time, Thomas was fed up. He was not going to slave on the NFL plantation any longer (For references see Jackie Robinson, Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson, Marshawn Lynch and Big Papi).
If he did, it would be under his own terms. He reported to the Chargers before the 8th game of the season, after he had cashed a $13,000 check the club issued to him if he would join the team for the remainder of the season.
While Thomas’ teammates stood at attention with hands over their hearts as the National Anthem played, Thomas paced back and forth, then before the Anthem was finished, he flopped down on a sideline bench, where he stayed during the entire game.
Traded to the Washington football franchise the next season, Thomas reported to the club during the preseason drills and continued to sit during the Star Spangled Banner at preseason games. Football fans, especially the white ones, quickly, turned on him. The backlash was similar to that expressed over Kaepernick’s decision to protest a political and legal system rigged against people of color in America.
In one 1972 preseason game, Thomas had had enough of the taunts and went into the stands to kick a fan in the seat of his pants. Shortly after, he was out of the game. Racism continues to run rampant in the streets of America, people of color continued to play sports, fight in American wars, get shot by police officers on a weekly basis and work for wages far below those paid to white citizens.
For better or far worst, Kaepernick has started a new conversation about what it has meant to be colored in America from 1619 until 2016. It will probably end his career in the NFL, but his conversation starter adds to the many voices crying out, “iustitiam, iustitiam in circuitu,” which is to say, justice, justice in the round!
Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist, the author of Paper puzzle and Justice in the Round; and the host of Beyond the Law with Harold Michael Harvey. He can be contacted at haroldmichaelharvey.com.