As the NFL season draws to a close, it seems like a good time to reflect on the actions of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick who chose to kneel during the playing of the national anthem at this year’s NFL games.

I’m a longtime 49ers fan, so during the team’s miserable performance this year, Kaepernick’s protests lended some interest to a horrible season for my team. Kaepernick started kneeling for  the anthem during the preseason and, once noticed, he attracted considerable media attention. During an 18-minute press conference in August Kaepernick explained his actions in some detail. He stated, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” He made it clear he was speaking out against police violence and added that police officers are government officials, ostensibly answerable to the citizens. He called for increased police training and accountability for their actions.

Soon afterwards, a number of NFL players and other athletes mirrored the protest with their own versions. There were even reports of high school football teams linking arms or kneeling during the anthem at their games. Some US military veterans voiced support for him with the hashtag #veteransforkaepernick.

He also received a significant amount of criticism from fans, commentators and even US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (She later stated her comments were “inappropriately dismissive and harsh”). According to an NFL fan poll at the beginning of the season, Kaepernick was the most disliked player in the league. Some fans posted videos of burning Kaepernick’s jersey. He claims he has received death threats.

Reasonable people may argue about the extent of and causes of police violence of which black males are disproportionately the victim, but why did Kaepernick receive such widespread, even vitriolic criticism? Why do so many people equate his actions with disrespect for the US military?

Kaepernick stated “I have great respect for the men and women who have fought for this country… they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up…” But the message from his critics was that ironically Kaepernick has the right to protest only because the US military protects those rights.

Sports writer Dave Zirin cleared this up nicely. He astutely argued, “The military doesn’t ‘give’ us the right to protest. The constitution does that. Two hundred years of struggle for civil liberties does that.”

If you think people derive their right to protest from the US military then you are arguing dissent is only possible if the military approves. If this were the case, people with guns could take away our rights. But our free speech rights emanate from the constitution, not the Army. Let’s stop using “disrespect for the military” as a straw man for protests with which we don’t agree.

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