Jeremy Lane’s national-anthem protest is an opportunity to learn about him, not judge him

Sep 2, 2016, 10:36 AM | Updated: 4:16 pm
Jeremy Lane followed Colin Kaepernick's lead by sitting for the national anthem in protest of racia...
Jeremy Lane followed Colin Kaepernick's lead by sitting for the national anthem in protest of racial inequality. (AP)

OAKLAND, Calif. – I don’t understand what motivated Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane to sit down during the national anthem before Thursday’s preseason game against the Raiders.

That’s an admission of mine, though, more than it is a criticism of him.

I’ve covered the Seahawks for each of Lane’s first four NFL seasons. I’ve interviewed him at least half a dozen times. I know he’s from Tyler, Texas, the same hometown as former Seahawks quarterback Matt Flynn. I know that Lane has a dog named Silver, and I know he worked his tail off to come back from those two stomach-wrenching injuries in the Super Bowl against New England, when he suffered a torn knee ligament and a horrific broken arm virtually simultaneously.

But I don’t know Lane like I know some of Seattle’s other players, which means I don’t really understand what motivated him to follow the lead of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and sit on the bench during the national anthem.

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That’s on me. I haven’t taken the time to get to know Lane, and if I don’t really know him, how can I judge him for that?

Yet that one action is all it took for one of the most anonymous players on one of the league’s most prominent teams to become a central figure in what has become a national shouting match over everything from racism to patriotism. He was one of three NFL players to make a gesture of protest during the national anthem this week. Kaepernick and fellow 49er Eric Reid went down on one knee Thursday in San Diego.

I don’t like the gesture. For me, it is a statement of division rather than a call for unity. Not only that, but I think the anger it engenders will be counterproductive, making it harder to develop the kind of mutual understanding that we need to diminish the very issues that are being protested. But mostly, I don’t like it because it conflicts with my feelings when I see the flag and hear our national anthem before a football game. I think of the soldiers who have sacrificed years – and in some cases, their lives – to preserve our freedom. I think of my in-laws who emigrated from Hong Kong in the 1970s, drawn to the United States by the opportunities that have been fulfilled by two ambitious and loving children, one of whom I’m grateful to have as my spouse. I think of the room that this country has afforded so many people to pursue their dreams.

That is my experience in America, though. It is not necessarily Jeremy Lane’s experience as a black man in America. In fact, given what he did Thursday, I think it’s safe to say it’s most definitely not Jeremy Lane’s experience as a black man in America.

So instead of criticizing the messenger or scrutinizing the way Lane delivered the message, I am going to try to gain a deeper understanding of who he is and what he’s gone through. That means going beyond his postgame interview on Thursday when he expressed little more than a desire to show support for Kaepernick.

“I just like what he’s doing,” Lane said after the game, “and I like I can stand behind him.”

This wasn’t because Lane has an especially deep relationship with Kaepernick. In fact, he didn’t tell Kaepernick of his intention to sit during the anthem nor did he tell his coach, Pete Carroll.

“I just did it,” Lane said.

And he said he’ll keep doing it.

“It’s something I plan on doing until I feel like justice has been served,” Lane said.

I want a more just society, too. I want our country to be one that Lane feels as proud of as I do, but before moving forward, I want to explain the scene in Seattle’s locker room after Thursday’s game in Oakland. At least a dozen people crammed around Lane’s locker as soon as the media was granted access. I was behind the first wall of people, and I had to reach through a tangle of arms and torsos and point my microphone toward Lane. It was so crowded I couldn’t hear everything he said. I had to listen to the recording later.

There were multiple TV cameras. At least three reporters recorded his answers with a camera phone. One reporter was Latino, but if there was an African-American reporter in the group, I didn’t see him. The only questions I heard asked came from reporters who were white. Like me.

In retrospect, that makes the interview a microcosm of the larger discussion that is occurring nationally with African-Americans standing up and speaking out about oppression and mistreatment while a whole lot of white people try to figure out what all the fuss is about and where they stand on the issue.

Now the question is how we react. You can get mad at Lane. He chose to do something that he knew some people in our country – maybe even most of them – would consider disrespectful no matter how many times he said he wasn’t trying to diminish anyone else. We can also dismiss his actions as naïve or misguided or redundant.

Or we can pause and consider the motivation. What must it take for someone to feel so aggrieved by racial inequality to do something that will anger most of the country?

Kaepernick didn’t sit down during the anthem hoping people would be OK with it. He did it with the understanding that a number of people would not be OK with it. He wanted to make a statement and said bluntly that he didn’t care what it cost him in terms of his career or his endorsements.

On Thursday, a relatively unknown cornerback from Seattle followed suit.

Again, that’s not a criticism of Lane. He’s a good player. Not great, but really good. He played his way from being a sixth-round pick who had a tendency to get in fights in practice as a rookie in 2012 to being Seattle’s fifth defensive back in 2014. If he wasn’t injured in the first half of Seattle’s loss to New England in the Super Bowl, I’m certain the Seahawks would have won that game. Lane was re-signed in the offseason to a four-year, $22 million contract, and one week before the regular season he stood up for something he obviously believes in by sitting down during the national anthem.

I don’t know all that much about him. I don’t entirely understand his rationale, either, let alone agree with it. But I’m willing to try and learn, and in the process I hope that our country can move toward something we’re all proud of.

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Jeremy Lane’s national-anthem protest is an opportunity to learn about him, not judge him