Bernstein: Does Jersey Activism Work?

By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist

(CBS) As he tries to open eyes and minds, Colin Kaepernick is at least moving shirts. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s red jersey became the top seller Tuesday at NFLShop.com, the league’s official shopping site. His white jersey checked in at No. 13, too.

Kaepernick has been sitting during the national anthem before his team’s exhibition games in silent protest of discrimination and wrongdoing against African-Americans. While decried by the usual suspects, his actions have continued to garner widespread support from other athletes and celebrities, with some like teammate Eric Reid, Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane and Seattle Reign soccer player Megan Rapinoe taking a knee during the anthem.

His team made it clear he’s doing nothing wrong, saying in their official statement, “We recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”

President Barack Obama went a step further, saying: “He’s exercising his constitutional right to make a statement. Maybe some critics will see he has a point around justice and equality. Sometimes it’s messy, but that’s how democracy works.”

And now it seems fans are plenty willing to make a statement with their wallet, plunking down $99 to display awareness at the very least, if not lock-step like-mindedness. It has to mean something that so many people are actually spending and not just using the free currency of hashtags to join a cause.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker on Tuesday night posted an Instagram photo of himself in a black version of the jersey, and actress Susan Sarandon tweeted about her purchase, “Mine’s arriving today.”

But what will it all eventually mean?

If we see Kaepernick jerseys in stands and on streets around the NFL as the regular season begins, is that representative of a real groundswell to address the root causes of the oppression being protested? Does wearing the shirt in public signify a desire to confront Kaepernick’s concerns about police brutality against people of color — what he described as “bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder”?

In many cases, I am sure it does, having long since been thought through by those with strong beliefs about systemic mistreatment and newly invigorated by the attention paid to a professional athlete’s stand. There are also those motivated more by trend and fashion than any deep social conscience.

Regardless, a critical mass could have an effect. If the sight is inescapable on our TVs on Sunday, with every crowd cut-away or establishment shot containing a red outlier or two, the optics begin to merit more attention. The discussion at least continues.

NBA players donned “I can’t breathe” shirts two years ago to protest the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City police, and WNBA players did the same for “Black Lives Matter” this summer. But slogans are different from direct personal support, with words often losing power as they diffuse into the public domain or are hijacked for specific political purposes.

The ultimate significance of buying and wearing a Kaepernick jersey may similarly not yet be ours to define, either. Our notoriously shortening attention spans and the onset of actual football will likely conspire to push against any current of social change. It will take actual editorial decisions by people on the NFL’s payroll to keep the images in front of us.

The only certainty is that by elevating an otherwise undesired jersey to the top of the sales list, Kaepernick is further padding the league’s coffers.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s “Boers and Bernstein Show” in afternoon drive. You can follow him on Twitter  @dan_bernstein and read more of his columns here.

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