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Kelly: Kaepernick’s critics know he’s right – but that’s not what this is about

More than a decade ago, Toronto Blue Jays slugger Carlos Delgado decided to protest the incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan by refusing to stand in the dugout during the playing of God Bless America.

For more than a year, no one noticed.

The Puerto Rican star was unusual among his peers for his willingness to use his sports pulpit for political purposes. When his small act of defiance was finally reported in 2004, Delgado explained himself in terms people cannot countenance – by highlighting obvious mistakes.

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"[I] think it's the stupidest war ever," Delgado told The Toronto Star. "Who are you fighting against? You're just getting ambushed now. We have more people dead now, after the war, than during the war. You've been looking for weapons of mass destruction. Where are they at?"

Nowadays, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone in the 50 American states willing to argue those facts. But at the time, Delgado was murdered for speaking up. The punditry went for his legs; fans went for the face.

He was booed at Yankee Stadium – the centrepiece of a city that should know better than most how much destruction can be wrought by the hive mind.

Related: Kaepernick's anthem protest is a good start, but we need to do more

Eventually, people lost interest because – here's the important part – they knew Delgado was right. All the thrashing about was performative. People must be seen defending their institutions, especially so when those institutions a) don't require any defence, and b) no one's exactly sure why they're defending them.

This is how moral certitude is displayed in a culture that suspects thoughtfulness – at highest possible volume, and without the hindrance of common sense or decency.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick finds himself in a similar position. He didn't stand during the national anthem in protest against police violence directed at American blacks.

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Very few people have taken the time to argue the merits of Kaepernick's position, which, one hopes, was the reason he bothered. Instead, there is an enormous rush to stake out the most extreme possible viewpoints on it.

On the right, so many people have begun furiously wrapping themselves in the flag, it's a wonder American emergency rooms aren't filled with the victims of rug burn.

On the other side, you have the emboldened left – still in its awkward pubescent stage when Delgado was piping up, and now fully grown after Iraq turned into an unmitigated disaster – treating a multimillionaire of no great importance who took a seat that one time like he's Martin Luther nailing his complaints to the front door of the White House.

Neither is the case. He's just a guy making a reasonable point many others have already made. Which is what's driving everyone so crazy.

By their nature, sports stars are not bold thinkers. They are not intellectually brave.

That sort of bravery bespeaks a tendency to strike off on one's own into uncomfortable territory, which is antithetical to the smooth functioning of a team.

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Athletes are company men. They do what they're told. No profession requires so much instruction and adherence to rigid planning. Back-talking, code-breaking and all other displays of individualism are considered poor form.

In return for this surrender of self, they get rich and famous. Most people consider it a pretty sweet deal.

That may be part of the reason why so many average folk are affronted by the Delgados and Kaepernicks of the world. It's not their politics, per se. It's the perceived sense of entitlement: "Who are you to turn your back on a deal I'd do anything to get?"

We want them towering and God-like, and at the same time we want them pliant as children.

They sense this, too, and so take reasonable measures to protect their investment in themselves. No one gets run into by huge men at high speed for 20 years, then wakes up one morning and says, "You know what I'm going to do? Chuck it all for a guest column in Dissent magazine."

You can be almost sure of one thing whenever any sports star with something to lose takes a principled stand on anything – that the argument has already been won.

Whether or not they realize it this morning, both Kaepernick and his critics know he's right. You could argue the minutiae, but anyone with an Internet connection can tell that America has lost its bearings. At the very least, let's agree to this: When agents of the government are shooting unarmed people in the streets, it does not usually signal the beginning of a Golden Age.

This is about more than police brutality. It's gun culture, vast economic and demographic shifts, and the toxicity of fear.

At its root, America has one crippling trouble – loneliness. Based on a sounding of their political discourse, Americans don't know their neighbours any more. They have no human connection to each other. And we despise what we don't know.

What they do have is sports. That is the nation's last public square. No wonder they become so belligerent when anyone tries to introduce reality into that pure, imaginary space.

There is no greater abettor of this collective fantasy than the NFL, which likes to promote itself as a family-based endeavour. Its marketing consistently drives home the reason football exists – to allow mom, dad and the kids to sit down on a Sunday and watch their fellow citizens brutalize each other for money. It's gruesome, but at least they're together.

(This is itself make-believe – fewer than half of American children live in what traditionalists would call a nuclear family. It's a fiction built on fictions.)

Into the midst of this chaotic wishfulness, a man wanders in to make a statement. He'd like folks to think about something. People recognize him, and he'd like to use that fact to start a little conversation. It may not be pleasant, but perhaps by talking, they might all learn how to see each other again.

If you are not sure, you argue with him. If you are, you yell at him or around him. Because you know he's right. Forget about the goddamned anthem. It's the least important of many unimportant things being talked about here.

What matters is how much pain you are willing to inflict and endure before you concede he has a point worth considering.

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