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Independence Day

Locker Room Talk: Colin Kaepernick chose independence in hopes that the truth would set us free

Which would you choose, independence or freedom?  

Which would you choose: Independence or freedom?

Obviously, you’d like both. But what if you could have just one? Which would you choose?

My fascination with this question intensifies every Fourth of July season as we commemorate the revolution that resulted in our nation’s independence from England and the creation of the world’s self-proclaimed great democracy.

The glitch is that the United States was founded as a slaveholding nation, and the idea of a democracy constructed on the backs of enslaved Africans is an unresolved dilemma that has kept the United States in a spiritual vise grip to this day.

We won our independence, but as a nation we’re still not free.

“The notion of the home of the brave and the land of the free has always been aspirational,” said Jonathan Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School. Walton is also the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and professor of religion and society.

“You can say that the country has always been bound by its contradictions,” Walton said. “Part of the reason that we’re not free is that we have refused to acknowledge the things that imprison us. We’re imprisoned by economic inequality; this nation has always been imprisoned by economic inequality; it was founded on economic inequality.”

Walton is a theologian and an enthusiastic sports fan.

His son was the captain of the Harvard football team. Walton is an Atlanta Falcons season-ticket holder, and one of his prized possessions is a jersey signed by former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick. Before his conviction and imprisonment on dogfighting charges, Vick was the NFL’s most electrifying player. Like many players with serious transgressions, Vick eventually found his way back into the NFL.

Will Colin Kaepernick ever find his way back into the NFL?

Kaepernick became the center of attention last season when he knelt during the playing of the national anthem. His was a silent, peaceful protest aimed at unpunished police violence against the black community, but also about systemic structural racism that facilitates such behavior.

Now Kaepernick, who led the San Francisco 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance, is looking for a job. His search has become a point of national intrigue. So far not one taker, even as lesser quarterbacks, including one he beat out in San Francisco, are being hired.

Kaepernick’s apparent blackballing by the NFL says a lot about the hypocrisy and fear that make NFL football an appropriate national pastime.

Kaepernick was never accused of domestic violence. No weapons charges, no domestic violence charges, no drug charges. No animal abuse issues.

“Whenever you have somebody who actuals identify the contradictions, or names where this nation has been falling short, we often penalize that person,” Walton said. “Kaepernick dared to give voice to his own humanity. His greatest sin is that he refused to let us live in the lie of our own freedom. We keep burying anything that provides evidence of our contradictions. We sweep it under the rug, hide it in the closet.”

The apparent blackballing of Kaepernick is not about football. This is about the erosion of the American Soul filtered through the prism of football.

Earlier this week, Kaepernick took to social media to share an eye-opening trip to Ghana. He tweeted a video of a trip he took to Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle, a former primary slave trade post. Kaepernick pointed out the irony of Cape Coast Castle and the United States celebrating Independence Day.

The United States won its independence, but we’re not free.

We make a big deal about professional athletes publicly discussing hot-button social and political issues. Kaepernick has pointed out that, like many others, he is holding the United States accountable. His stage is vast. The NFL is the epicenter of contemporary U.S. culture.

NFL owners apparently don’t want whatever Kaepernick has — consciousness — to spread.

Kaepernick is merely acting in the great tradition that fueled the Revolutionary War: dissent.

A significant part of the public seems to have become anesthetized to the unnecessary use of force by police and perhaps to the idea that comfort may come at the expense of a fellow citizen.

“That’s the history of America,” Walton said. “My freedom is dependent upon somebody else’s enslavement; my freedom is based on somebody else being terrorized; my safety is dependent on somebody else being stopped and frisked, somebody else being patrolled by police constantly.”

The stadium and the arena were once places where fans could escape these types of protests. They could lose themselves. NFL stadiums were places where largely white fans could see black bodies running up and down, colliding with one another, making plays.

“They were inherently violent,” Walton said, “but were contained and controlled.

“And most importantly,” Walton added, speaking for the fan, “the athletes are silent. They won’t remind me of all the un-freedoms that make my existence possible.”

Kaepernick has already won, even if he is not signed this season.

His stature grows with each day he remains unsigned.

“There is an entire community out there that has embraced this brother,” Walton said. “The more he’s marginalized by certain forces, the more he’s going to find new communities of strength. When it’s all said and done, we’re going to be talking about Kaepernick in this moment.”

Kaepernick should consider taking his time about getting back into the NFL. He will never be as free as he is at this moment, with no team to yank his chain, no team owner to threaten him.

“I believe strongly that when this is all said and done, Kaepernick will end up being the athlete who defines this historical moment,” Walton added. “We’ll be celebrating him the same way we celebrate Ali.”

That’s ambitious, but this much is clear: Colin Kaepernick is a lightning rod and a conscious bearer who is enjoying the best of both worlds, freedom and independence.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.