Let’s remember, for a moment, Rae Carruth.
Or, more to the point, let’s remember Cherica Adams.
Adams was young, and beautiful, and excited to become a mother. Carruth, the father of her baby, was a mercurial wide receiver for the Carolina Panthers and uninterested in adding to his child support ledger.
On the night of Nov. 16, 1999, Adams was following Carruth home from the movies when he braked to a sudden stop in front of her car. Another car pulled up beside Adams, and its driver fired five shots. Four hit the 24-year-old woman, and the other vehicles drove away.
Adams managed to call 911, her voice strangled in her own blood.
“I was following my baby’s daddy, Rae Carruth, the football player,” she told the operator. “ … He just left. I think he did it.”
Adams’ baby, Chancellor, was born 10 weeks early, with cerebral palsy and permanent brain damage. But he lived. His mother even got to hold him - sort of - when the newborn was placed on her chest as she lay comatose in a hospital bed before she died in December.
Carruth fled and was captured in a car trunk in Tennessee, accompanied by bottles of his own urine. He was convicted of conspiring to have Adams murdered and sentenced to almost 19 years in prison.
He is scheduled to be released on Oct. 22, 2018.
Carruth’s name made the news again this week, when a writer for Bleacher Report spoke to seven anonymous NFL executives, one of whom said that Colin Kaepernick has become the target of the most “collective dislike” since Carruth.
Wow, one might think. What crime did this Kaepernick fellow commit?
He exercised his constitutional right to free speech.
Kaepernick, a quarterback – backup these days, three seasons removed from starting Super Bowl XLVII – for the San Francisco 49ers, has drawn the focused, furious ire of a nation for refusing to stand during the national anthem in two preseason games. He says he is protesting racial injustice and police brutality in America – not disrespecting his country – and has pledged to donate $1 million to groups working to combat those issues.
Kaepernick sat during the national anthem on Aug. 26 and knelt during the song on Thursday to a chorus of boos.
One thing I think I have written consistently about is the importance of our right, as American citizens, to freedom of speech. As a journalist, it's sacrosanct. I have defended it even in cases such as ex-L.A. Clippers owner and repugnant racist Donald Sterling, who I did not think should have been fined for expressing his beliefs, nauseating as they were, about black people.
I have also waxed quite – well, prolifically, if not always eloquently – about how that right is so misunderstood. It does not mean, I have said, freedom of consequences from that speech. Sterling would have been punished by people not buying tickets to see his team and enjoyed no protection from that, I recall writing. Phil Robertson is free to opine about how gays is evil while marrying off his teenage daughter to a well-hung duck, I may have thought - and free to watch ratings for his TV show tank in response.
I don’t change that opinion when the exerciser of said speech is the bearer of a less revolting message, one more in line with my liberal sensibilities. (While I love my country and support those who fight for it, as George Carlin said, symbols are best left to the symbol-minded. But I digress.) Kaepernick no doubt knew going into this that his would be an unpopular opinion, and if it plays a role in teams not signing him if he’s cut by the 49ers (which was looking likely before this brouhaha), then he has no constitutional protection against that consequence.
But let’s get this straight. Colin Kaepernick is not Rae Carruth.
If you find his actions disrespectful, fine. If you think he’s insulting America’s military, fine. (I think America insults its military by sending soldiers to war and turning its back on them when they return broken – if they return – but that’s my opinion). But if you think what he’s doing is on par with arranging to have his pregnant girlfriend murdered, you’re part of the problem.
The NFL, and the America of which it is both microcosm and macro-representative, can manufacture schmaltz on a dime. It can turn up the tear-jerker dial with the best of them, showcasing surprise reunions with returning veterans and painting its dog-and-pony show the prettiest shades of red, white and blue you ever did see.
But patriotism, like everything else in Roger Goodell’s fiefdom, comes with a price tag – a $5.4 million one, to be exact. That’s how much the Department of Defense paid 14 different NFL teams from 2011-2014 in exchange for game-day patriotic hoopla, according to a report by NJ.com.
Talk about the American way.
In the NFL, you can beat up your girlfriend or kill someone while driving drunk or in a nightclub brawl and it will usually blow over in a multi-game suspension. What you can’t do, without widespread and reverberating condemnation, is express an unpopular opinion, go off-script, “become a distraction.”
That is patently un-American. In this country, you can take a stand – or a seat, or a knee. Others don’t have to like it. But they don’t have the right to insist that you do things their way.
I remember one afternoon in an honors English class during my freshman year of high school. I forget what was being discussed, but the teacher was exploring different viewpoints. Students were asked to move to a side of the room in response to questions. At one point, she asked everyone in favor of the death penalty to move to the right side.
I stood in my orange Benetton sweater and white prairie skirt that touched the top of my brown lace-up ankle boots, watching every other person in that room walk away. I needed no help in those days, when anxiety lurked down darkened hallways and laughter was an unpleasant sound because it was often aimed at me, feeling self-conscious. I considered joining the right-side exodus. I considered it seriously.
I stood where I was. By myself.
This is not to make myself sound heroic, or to say that I think Kaepernick is – though I do agree that this country has problems, and to keep insisting that we don’t, that if we just sing loud enough and stare unblinkingly ahead, everything will be fine, is asinine.
It’s just to say that I had the right to stand there. And he has a right to sit.
If you must manufacture some outrage – if children going hungry, or homeless people being killed by falling trees in hurricanes, or the astronomical suicide rates among veterans, or convicted rapists serving three months in jail just doesn’t do it for you – try this.
Rae Carruth will be a free man in little more than two years. Get mad about that.