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3 prominent black NFL players disagree on race, and that’s important

Colin Kaepernick, Richard Sherman, and Cam Newton show why race isn't and shouldn't be a simple discussion.

Divisional Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Three of the most prominent and vocal black NFL players have three different opinions on racial inequality and police brutality. Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem throughout the 49ers’ preseason, then when people noticed he was clear: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” Conversely, Cam Newton has been demur on race, saying in a GQ profile, when asked about Kaepernick, that “We’re beyond that” — meaning race — “as a nation.”

Somewhere between those two — between what we can maybe call the poles of this debate — is Richard Sherman. The Seahawks cornerback is perhaps the most outspoken player in the league. He has taken on the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell directly a number of times, for their hypocritical media policies and internal conflicts of interest, for example. He is rarely unsure of himself, on the field or off. On how to support Kaepernick, however, he seems genuinely torn.

In a long interview with The Undefeated, Sherman aligned with Newton, describing race as a construct and criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement for having “several different messages.” When asked, he emphasized the agency that black communities have to combat police violence against black people, citing the job that his parents did to keep him and his siblings out of gangs while growing up in Compton. Sherman thought then that “there is also a mentality that we want to blame someone else for black fathers not being there for all these people having all these kids and nobody raising them.”

At the same time, Sherman conceded that there is a lack of jobs and funding for education in black communities. Then last week, he refused to take any questions during his press conference and instead gave a two-minute statement that was significantly different from everything he had previously said.

At his Week 3 presser, Sherman admitted that police violence against black people isn’t necessarily a reflection of community violence as he had insinuated. He seemed to be revising his interview in The Undefeated specifically as he spoke again about black fathers: “There’s not a lot you can try to inspire a person when you say, ‘We need black fathers to be in the community to stay their for your kids,’ but they’re getting killed in the street for nothing.”

Sherman didn’t back off the stance that Newton has taken, that society’s ills can be fixed when all people, black people included, stop seeing race. But Sherman also made a big concession to Kaepernick’s certain terms: That there’s a particular problem with how law enforcement treats people of color that needs to change.

Now I have to tell you who I am. This website pays me to write about sports — things like balls, points, kicks, hoops, and dingers — and I don’t even do that well according to a lot of people. I am not an authority on race. I am one of this planet’s multitude of doofuses, except that I have this platform. I started thinking about this because Sherman’s presser struck me as nuanced and different from the conversation that was being had. So I listened to what these athletes were saying, talked to people who know these issues better than I do, and thought for a while. These words are the product of that process. I know some people are going to be mad that SB Nation wrote something else about Colin Kaepernick and race, but I promise you this story is really just one guy, me, wrestling with what the hell everyone is talking about and has nothing to do with SB Nation and its very real liberal agenda.*

*(those last six words are a joke).

Disclaimer necessary. I’ve seen how the comment sections usually play out. There are as many opinions about race in the United States as individuals who care to think about the issue, but when you get a big group of people talking about it in the same place at the same time, the conversation becomes a team competition. A conversation is incomprehensible when there are too many different voices, but it’s also reductive when simplified. It creates conspiracies when I think — me, a doofus — the real reason for so much confusion and disagreement is the fact that so many individuals are trying to make sense of a complicated issue.

Kaepernick started a discussion that isn’t as much a dichotomy between Black Lives and All Lives as it feels like. A movement starts when a lot of people feel roughly the same way about something, but how they come to those feelings reflect who they are and what they’ve experienced as individuals. And that’s it.

That’s the case with Kaepernick, a half-black, half-white man who was adopted by a white family, and through that lens has related how strangers implicitly treated him differently from the members of his own family growing up. It’s also the case with Newton, who took more criticism than any player of recent memory last season. He felt then that the criticism was racially motivated, saying before the Super Bowl that "I'm an African-American quarterback. That may scare a lot of people because they haven't seen nothing that they can compare me to.'' His about face on race this season has to contain that context, how that last season wore on him, and the fact that the Panthers reportedly hired a GOP consultant to coach the quarterback on how to talk about this issue in particular.

Sherman has batted back critics long enough not to feel he has to cater to them, but he did grow up much differently than Kaepernick did. Self-efficacy drove his household. His father told the LA Times that he would hang out with gang members when he was young, and that he was shot in the chest twice when he was 18 — "After that I said, 'To hell with hanging out with people,'" he said. "I went out and got a job, and I've worked ever since."

Sherman’s black father did what Sherman hopes black communities can do now: Take the initiative to escape situations that engender violence. His context can change, however. The day before Sherman gave a new message during his truncated press conference, 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott was shot dead in Charlotte, sparking more protests.

Sherman is differentiating himself by degrees. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the country is fixated on whether someone can protest the national anthem and not hate everything about America. That’s a binary question, and one that splits people into winners and losers when there really should be none. Whatever you feel, there’s a logic and a context to it, even if I (doofus), or anyone, or the entire world disagrees. The dichotomy is fake.

We’re seeing players consider race and take part in the conversation before our eyes. They’re saying something every time they take a knee, raises their fists, link arms, or do none of those things. The players are wearing the same uniforms for a game that claims to be the team-iest of team sports, and yet NFL sidelines have become naked displays of individualism.

And no, those personal demonstrations don’t have to compromise the team as an apparatus. As Patriots defensive end Chris Long pointed out — and mind you, Long is a white man who has stood for the national anthem the last three weeks — being a part of a team means considering your teammates and their own contexts — "And listen, I'm just going to listen to my peers because I respect those guys, and I can't put myself in their shoes."

Long addresses the unknowable and how we deal with it. You can treat what you don’t understand as opposition or as something simply different from you. The latter requires the effort to understand why and may never offer a win/loss payoff. It will eliminate a lot of the bogeymen from your life, however, whether that’s currently Kaepernick, Newton, Sherman, me, or anyone for any reason.

It’s easy to see things as symptoms of an uncontrollable disease, but that lens strips individuals of their agency, and people deserve more credit than that. This conversation is so complex and heated because it affects individuals in ways that no other individuals can entirely comprehend. Empathy helps, but ultimately time might be the best thing, and this conversation has gone on long enough that perhaps it can enter a sorely needed introspective period.

And of course, you can still say someone is back-assward wrong, even after coming to understand the perspective attached to the opinion. Just leave that person space to change, and never assume this country is somehow weaker, and not stronger, just because not everyone agrees on something.