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No One Likes Moral Courage at the Time: Using Colin Kaepernick’s Stance as a Teachable Moment

by Jim Thompson

08.31.2016

Dumbledore said it best at the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but even more to stand up to our friends.” 

Why does it take so much courage to stand up to our friends, our family, the dominant society?

I think Barbara Ehrenreich was on to something in her study of the origins of war, Blood Rites, when she noted that in the early days people were prey, not hunters. Before the development of weapons, humans were at the mercy of predators, which caused them to gather together in tribes for safety.

If you were with a whole bunch of people, your chances of surviving an encounter with a hungry saber-toothed tiger were much higher. Ehrenreich surmises that this original terror of being hunted is still with us, and is what keeps people in line with the dominant culture. Going against the group is scary at a deep level because being ostracized by the group still can feel like a death sentence.

When we notice something that we think is wrong but our “tribe” is either the ones doing it or supporting it, and we know that our friends, family and co-workers are not going to like our speaking out, the old fear of being ostracized kicks in, often in a visceral way.

This is where “moral courage” comes in. Moral courage is the courage to stand up publicly for what one believes is right even when, especially when, one’s tribe and/or the dominant culture is not going to like it. Moral courage virtually requires feeling discomfort or worse by the person displaying it.

It’s easy to rail at some bad action done by someone that our tribe dislikes. No moral courage needed there. We can join in and say how horrible something is, knowing that the people closest to us will agree.

Which brings me to Colin Kaepernick, who had to know that many, many people would not like his symbolic action of refusing to stand during the National Anthem. Whether you support Colin’s right to do this or not—and I do—if you are honest with yourself you pretty much have to admire his moral courage.

So many of the people we now admire were ostracized at the time they showed their moral courage. In his illuminating book, The Road to Character, David Brooks highlights individuals in this category such as Dorothy Day who was imprisoned for her activism and is now being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church.

There is a similar arc to the life of Muhammad Ali, who was subjected to severe vituperation for opposing the Vietnam War and becoming a Muslim at the time, but now is revered. Even Martin Luther King, Jr., for whom a national holiday is named, was widely reviled at the time he did the things that we now admire. 

Moral courage is rarely appreciated when it happens. Although Colin Kaepernick has done nothing that harms veterans, he is being rebuked for not showing respect. I loved Marcus Thompson’s questions to critics of Kaepernick in his San Jose Mercury News column regarding what he calls “faux rage” on this issue: “What are you doing to help somebody else? Before you get on your high horse and examine someone else, how are you helping?”

At Positive Coaching Alliance we encourage coaches, parents and athletes to show moral courage, to do the right thing, even when it is not going to be popular. For example, when sports parents begin to yell about a “bad” call against their team, a parent from that team might help defuse the situation from getting out of hand by saying something like, “I actually thought that was the correct call,” even though the outraged parents may not appreciate it.

Hazing is a vexing problem on high school sports teams. What if one or two athletes were to say, “Hey, picking on new players isn’t right and it isn’t helping our team get better”?

That would take the kind of moral courage that Colin Kaepernick is showing and it might throw a crimp into hazing in a way that official school policies against hazing often can’t.

As coaches, we can help athletes develop moral courage through “moral rehearsal.”   Several years ago Oak Grove High School Athletic Director Ed Buller read about a gang rape at a party attended by members of another California high school’s football team (who didn’t participate in the rape but also did nothing to stop it). Ed made copies of the article and sat down with his football team and had them talk about what they could do if they found themselves in a similar situation.

Coaches who want to be character developers need to expand our horizon from simply anticipating what the other team is going to do in a game situation to include moral rehearsal as well. Helping our players think through a tough situation before it happens can prepare them to take helpful, compassionate action when they find themselves in a similar situation.

Why not start with Colin Kaepernick’s example? Let’s explain what moral courage is to our players and ask them how they feel about Kaepernick’s action. Ask them what they might do if they are in a situation where they feel something wrong is happening but they would likely be criticized if they did anything. Each coach can share his or her own feeling about the rightness or wrongness of Kaepernick’s action, but let’s make sure we help our players understand the difficulty of exhibiting moral courage rather than simply dumping on him.

Helping our players understand the concept of moral courage and develop their own moral courage can be a life lesson that could reverberate in positive ways in the future lives of our players long after their playing days are over.

Jim Thompson, founder and CEO of Positive Coaching Alliance, is obsessed with how to get the best from people, especially youth, through the unsurpassed vehicle of youth sports with its endless procession of teachable moments. PCA is a national non-profit organization Jim started in 1998 to transform the culture of youth sports into a Development Zone® with the goal to develop Better Athletes, Better People.

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