MLK Jr. (and Theodore Parker and, more recently, President Obama) told us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The line can be interpreted many ways, but the way the 44th president – and I – understand it is that while the cost to get there may be brutal and filled with the kinds of setbacks that affect millions of people, humankind is generally getting more inclusive and tolerant over time. Jackie Robinson was hated during his career, but is looked back upon now as a hero. Same with John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Likewise for Muhammad Ali.
There are millions of exceptions to this, and millions more who wouldn’t be Ali fans if they internalized what he really stood for, but they are certainly seen more positively today than at the time. And while there’s plenty of evidence available to anyone willing to open their eyes that progress has slowed to a crawl – and in some places has even reversed – there is still an inescapable truth woven into our societal fabric that those who take stands against oppression and inequality are viewed more positively as time goes on, and those who oppose them eventually end up on the wrong side of history.
Colin Kaepernick and John Urschel are on the right side of history.
They aren’t heroes in the way King or Harriet Tubman or whoever else you want to insert here were, but a hero is “one who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities,” according to the dictionary. Colin Kaepernick risked and possibly sacrificed his career because he wanted to call attention to the unequal ways in which black people are treated in this country, especially by the police.
His method of protest wasn’t to burn a flag or break the law or undermine his team in any way; it was simply to kneel during the national anthem, an appropriate measure for a man who wasn’t proud of his country at that very moment. He followed it up by consistently donating his time and money to worthwhile causes while waiting for the call from an NFL team that never came. To me, that’s courage. He was a rich man who had made it, and he risked his career and his reputation to fight for those without the same privileges.
The case for John Urschel is less clear, and there may even be a good case for leaving him out and making this article only about Kaepernick. However, in a league that consistently lies to itself and its fans about a variety of topics, head injuries and overall health being most important, Urschel took a noble stand by retiring on Thursday, just two days after a devastating report concluded that 110 of 111 brains of deceased NFL players have CTE. That doesn’t mean 99% of NFL players will have CTE – only players and their families worried enough about the diease to donate their brains to the study were counted – but Urschel, a math genius currently getting his Ph.D. at MIT, is smart enough to know the numbers aren’t very promising.
Urschel had previously shown bravery by publicly committing himself to the pursuit of math in a sport where teams pass on players in the Draft for having too many outside interests other than football. Pursuing his Ph.D. while playing for the Ravens was essentially a giant middle finger to the entire anti-intellectual NFL coaching and front office establishment. His actions said that it was okay to be well-rounded, it was okay to be intellectual, and that sports don’t define who you are as a person.
His retirement also sent a message that CTE isn’t some abstract thing without consequences. It’s real, it’s affecting NFL players’ lives, and you can lower your risk of getting it by retiring. Football isn’t everything in life – nor should it be – and it is perfectly all right to walk away early. There’s no moral code to “get the most out of your talent.” That is something fans say from the comfort of their cushy couches. Urschel isn’t a verbose man (unless the subject is math) and didn’t choose to call attention to himself here, but his actions speak louder than his words.
When Urschel came out of Penn State, there was one organization that was willing to look past whatever he did off the field (as if being good at math was some crime, but I promise you that many NFL evaluators would actually prefer criminals to academics) and focus on what he could provide on it. That organization was the Ravens. Really just two men, Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh, who saw the bigger picture. Not coincidentally, Harbaugh came out after Joe Flacco was hurt Wednesday and said that he’s been talking to Kaepernick all summer and is exploring the idea of signing him as a backup.
I encourage him to do just that and show that rather than being a distraction, Colin Kaepernick can be a voice for change and progress. The ball is in your court, John.