October 4, 2017

On Colin Kaepernick’s conspicuous absence from the latest cover of Sports Illustrated


Colin Kaepernick pictured here; not pictured in Sports Illustrated. Via Flickr.

The latest issue of Sports Illustrated, which hit newsstands this past Monday, is catching heat for what exactly it does and does not illustrate about sports. On the cover of the October 2nd, 2017 issue, we see some of the biggest names in sports and sports administration locking arms (thanks to some photoshopping), backgrounded by the American flag, and foregrounded by a banner that reads “A Nation Divided / Sports United.”

Of course, the cover is a reaction to the very public attacks that Donald Trump has leveled at the sports world over the last few weeks, especially against those players who have taken a knee during the national anthem, refusing “to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” So why is the cover catching heat? Precisely because it does not include the man I just quoted — the NFL player who originally brought Trump’s blood to a boilColin Kaepernick.

In a sharp critique of the SI cover, Ameer Hassan Loggins and Christopher Petrella write in the Guardian:

Kaepernick’s inexplicable absence from Sports Illustrated’s cover renders the image laughably incoherent. In many ways, it also creates a cultural vacuum for the public to import its calls for civility, respect and patriotism into a flimsy narrative of “unity”.

They go on to say:

Furthermore, whereas the NBA and NFL appear well represented, the influence of the WNBA — a league in which scores of players have spoken out against systemic racial oppression since at least July 2016 in the wake of the killing of Philando Castile by a Minneapolis-area police officer – is vastly marginalized.

These absences and distortions matter, particularly when they are being perpetrated by a fixture of global popular culture like Sports Illustrated.

To put this differently, the cover takes what Kaepernick and a powerful showing of WNBA stars have very clearly articulated as a protest against racial injustice in America, and turns it into a hoary message about the indefatigability of the American spirit. In doing so, the magazine seems to recreate Trump’s own awful rhetoric about the protests: That they’re about the flag itself, or about the vague concept of America it represents, rather than about a series of atrocities somehow permitted under that banner.

The other Kaepernick-shaped hole in the cover collage is the idea that Trump’s public obsession with the quarterback’s protest is yet another example of our 45th president attacking specific individuals for their non-loyalty. It is plenty normal for presidential rhetoric to involve some hateful scapegoating and stoking of the culture wars — that’s as American as the gridiron itself. But it is emphatically not normal, nor is it acceptable, for personal vendettas against private citizens (acting comfortably within their rights) to occupy so much, even any, of a president’s rhetoric.

Sure, Kaepernick is speaking to to a cause much bigger than just himself. But he, specifically, is speaking to something very specific. We risk losing too much when we try to frame this any other way — for instance, by framing it the way SI has.




Ryan Harrington is an editor at Melville House.