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Colin Kaepernick is doing what heroes do

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Why do we cheer when fictional heroes take a stand but chastise athletes who do it in real life?

Compromise where you can, but where you can’t? Don’t. Not even when everyone is telling you that something wrong is actually something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye and say, "No. You move."

Sharon Carter said those words as she exchanged glances with Steve Rogers at her Aunt Peggy’s funeral in Captain America: Civil War. It was a scene meant to reassure him in his decision not to sign away his agency and the agency of his fellow SHIELD heroes over to a United Nations panel.

That advice is also the summarization of a hero’s life, regardless of their plane of existence. And since life tends to imitate art, our real life heroes also tend to mirror those in our stories.

What Colin Kaepernick does by refusing to stand for the national anthem is simple: He has seen an injustice and he’s calling it out. He has compromised by taking a knee rather than sitting down, but he refuses to abandon his cause.

Not even when it puts his career and his person in jeopardy, or when he’s told to comply by outraged sportswriters, shady NFL executives, cowardly colleagues, and the general public. Not even after his birth mom expressed her disappointment in his actions.

Rather than submitting to their calls to fall in line, to find another even more discreet way to protest — as if sitting or kneeling isn’t discreet enough — he’s challenged society to look at the issues at hand and to be better. To move forward.

Since the first hero, Sargon the First in 2800 B.C., the stories of great people doing extraordinary things have usually followed the same structure:

The hero is born the child of distinguished parents. The birth is always preceded by difficulties, usually continence or infertility. Before or after the pregnancy, there is a prophecy foretelling of the child’s great power. The child, after birth, is put into a body of water or exposed to the wilderness, before being saved by either animals or lowly people (adoption).

After they grow up, the child returns to their homeland, fulfills the prophecy and then the true nature of their birth is revealed to them — the revelation sometimes comes at the end of their story. They gain high ranks and honors from their show of power.

It’s the story of Moses, of Karna, Perseus, Krishna, Cyrus, Romulus, Oedipus, Tristan, David, Hercules, Siegfried, Lohengrin and so on.

When stories don’t follow this "chosen one" trope, they invert it, and this is especially true for Western heroes. Rather than the hero being born of divinity, they are an ordinary person who through some accident or experiment, is granted great powers and then tasked with doing the extraordinary. They aren’t forced to stand for justice by birth or even by the acquisition of their powers, but because they want to. Because it’s the right thing to do.

So, Steve Rogers for example, starts off as a weak kid from Brooklyn whose only desire is to do good. This type of story works well for societies that extol the power of the individual, where the old trope says that one has to be born into greatness. This style suggests that anyone, even the smallest of us, can be a hero.

The heroes in these stories, rather than facing an equally supernatural or demonic being as the chosen ones often do, battle against oppressive systems or representations of it. They still combat villains who often come from a similar point of perceived injustice, but rather than calling for fairness, decide to exact revenge or cause chaos. But more than anything else — and what those villains tend to represent — these heroes fight against flawed ideals.

Kaepernick fits this archetype perfectly. He is a highly paid athlete, the second-string quarterback for the 49ers, a mixed-race child who was adopted by a white family and someone who achieved his dreams and gained success through his talents and hard work. He has lived the American dream. So, he is one of the last few people that you would expect to take such a stand. He even explains that while he’s been racially profiled, it’s not a personal affliction that he’s kneeling against.

It’s almost expected for someone to speak out against an injustice when they are personally affected, and it’s far too easy to disregard those people as complainants. As "pulling the race card."

The even more courageous move is to stand against something especially when you’re not affected by it. More so if you benefit from the injustice. To do something good even when it’s to your detriment. And this can be as small as saving the world from a paranormal threat or as big, as real and incredibly consequential as refusing to give up your seat on the bus.

It can also be as supportive as Megan Rapinoe, the Seattle Reign and United States women’s national team star, taking a knee in solidarity as the national anthem played before her team’s game against the Chicago Red Stars:

"Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it. It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that’s really powerful."

So, the idea that Kaepernick is too rich or too successful to be upset at oppression is just another deflective line of thinking. So is believing that he should find some other way to protest, that he’s being disrespectful to the military or that wearing socks with cops portrayed as pigs invalidates his position.

He’s addressed all of these thoughts: stature doesn’t shield one from racism nor does success and proximity mean that one should ignore the suffering of others. Sitting and kneeling are two of the most peaceful ways to protest nor should protest be done to accommodate the preferences of the group in power. Veterans have come out to back him. And the socks issue is entirely ridiculous.

A crude, satirical depiction of police carries nowhere near the effects of hundreds of years of racism that manifests itself today in housing discrimination, police brutality and restriction to the freedoms that America promises to its citizens. The only people who entertain such an idea are the ones who want to move away from this conversation as quick as possible.

All of these deflections, the ad-hominem attacks, the suggestion of blackballing him by mysterious — there’s always doubt about anonymous sources — NFL executives is a big problem with racism and other injustices: people are too cowardly to confront them and they know that they benefit from the unfairness of it.

It’s also what happens when the audience who usually project themselves into the hero, who relate to the individual that fights against the impossible odds and the powerful, corrupt system finds themselves as part of that antagonistic entity. You’re no longer the individual burdened with greatness, you’re the obstacle.

It seems that this relation is restored once the hero ages or dies, when they’re no longer there to make the people feel uncomfortable about the reality of the world -- like in the case of Muhammad Ali.

Kaepernick, and every other hero that’s ever existed, has one main goal: they want people to be better than they are. To treat others fairly. To address and work to fix oppression. Heroes, written or real, plead for a better future.