Guess Who's Missing From the New Sports Illustrated Cover?

The man who wasn't there

Politics Features Colin Kaepernick
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Guess Who's Missing From the New Sports Illustrated Cover?

Sports Illustrated published a cover about the NFL-Trump controversy.

But they left someone out.

As The Root described it:

Sports Illustrated's latest cover, which debuted Monday, is a tribute to the athletes, coaches and leaders of the sports world who took a stand this weekend against Donald Trump, attacks on our constitutional and civil rights, and the injustices suffered by blacks and other people of color in this country. The cover title, “A Nation Divided Sports United,” accompanies a picture of several of these sports figures, with one person noticeably missing: Colin Kaepernick.

Where is Kaepernick?

What is Sports Illustrated afraid of? Why were they reluctant to include, as Ben Rohrbach put it, “the one man who really belonged front and center?”

Simple. They are afraid of a conversation.

A discussion they desperately want to avoid.

Kaepernick’s kneeling is a protest against cop killings, and against white supremacy. America is a nation that loves to lie to itself, and so these issues cannot be discussed in mainstream spaces. Most liberal journalists and publications are afraid of being seen as anti-troop and anti-cop. They are reluctant to touch the subject.

In America, African-Americans are killed in disproportionate numbers by police. In America, we sit atop a racist structure. Our wealth rests atop a hill of plundered slave lives. This is not comfortable to think about. Americans will not consider this history without much prodding. Prodding is what Kaepernick is doing.

Sports Illustrated is a magazine about sports, which is a form of entertainment. Sports, Illustrated. Their moral reluctance to include Kaepernick is disappointing, but not surprising. When was the last time you saw Entertainment Weekly seriously address the shameful marginalization of POC in film history? When was the last time Premiere really tackled the sexist treatment of women in Hollywood? SI is simply Famous Monsters of Filmland, but for a wider audience.

However, when Trump went off script and attacked the NFL, then the issue became safe. The President had violated an agreed-upon norm, so SI could safely criticize him. Quickly, the kneeling became all about Trump, Trump, Trump.

It didn’t matter that Kaepernick had taken started taking a knee during Obama’s Presidency.

It didn’t matter to the press or to centrists that Kaepernick’s principled protest was against the systemic, enduring culture of institutionalized violence.

After Trump’s speech, it became acceptable to talk about kneeling … without talking about the subject that had inspired the kneel: “Hey, you hate Trump, we hate Trump too! Er, we can talk about white supremacy some other time.”

Overnight, centrists became more comfortable taking a knee. The unpleasant topic of Kaepernick’s politics could recede into the background. We could avoid that awkward conversation about race, in a league which is seventy percent African-American.

Hating Trump is safe.

Protecting the First Amendment is safe.

Talking about white supremacy is awkward.

Talking about cops shooting black people is awkward.

Talking about paid patriotism is awkward.

Guess which of these issues the NFL and SI want to talk about?

As The Root pointed out, this is how “framing, narrative, status conferral and agenda setting in media works.” The same league that won’t hire him is “being praised for supposedly taking a stand.”

That’s why SI is more comfortable throwing Roger Goodell on their cover than Kaepernick. Don’t worry: fifty or a hundred years from now, when it’s safe, they’ll have a legacy issue with Kaepernick’s first kneel on the cover. The story will read “Profiles in Courage,” and will contain some sentence along these lines: “To stand up for justice, Kaepernick discovered he had to take a knee first.” By then it will be safe to discuss Kaepernick; SI won’t risk offending anyone. It won’t require daring, dedication, courage, or considering the greater good. You know: all those virtues supposedly illustrated by sports.