Remember Colin Kaepernick? How could you forget? He’s the only professional football player who seems to cast a longer shadow when he’s on one knee than when he’s standing behind the line of scrimmage. His action and the movement for which he stands have provided NFL proceedings with a low level of controversy since 2016, which seems to shift back and forth from background noise to the center of attention a few times a year when someone like Jay-Z partners with the NFL or Rihanna turns down a Super Bowl performance. Kaepernick made headlines again in November 2019 when he participated in a workout for several NFL teams, assumedly in the hopes to prove that he still has what it takes to perform as a high-level professional quarterback. But how did we get here? Why did the simple action of taking a knee prove so resonant that I could write a blog post about it over three years later?
The answer has to do with meaning making and symbol management – semiotics, as the discipline has come to be called. The semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce, in particular, provide a helpful rubric for organizing the shifting symbolic activity involved in this case study. Peirce understood all human cognitive activity to take a tripartite structure; to consist of a physical manifestation, which he called a representamen, to stand for something other than the representamen, which he called an object, and for these two to be associated with one another through the action of an “interpretant” (Chandler 2017). These three components of symbolic activity are frequently diagrammed as such:
Peirce’s semiotics provides a way to organize the symbolic activity, not necessarily to provide new insight. However, in the case of Kaepernick, organizing the semiotic process is exactly what we need.
Star Spangled Signs
The symbolic story of Colin Kaepernick begins centuries ago. In 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote what would become America’s national anthem to commemorate the resilience of Fort McHenry after being bombed by the British in the War of 1812. Representamen: song. Object: the bombing of Ft. McHenry. Interpretant: Living memory.
It was a century later, however, in 1916, that the Star Spangled Banner began to be used as the National Anthem. Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order that assigned new meaning to the song for the American military (Klein 2014). While it took 15 years for this order to actually be signed into law, it indicated an important semiotic shift: while the of song remained the same, the object shifted toward the ideal of national identity through the interpretant of governmental propaganda.
Since then, there have been few minor symbolic waves to the national anthem, but the boat was rocked to an unprecedented degree in the Fall of 2016. In an attempt to protest the nationwide prevalence of deaths of black men at the hands of police officers, NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem during a preseason game. Our semiotic story gets tricky here, as we begin to deal with more than one symbolic thread. By juxtaposing the perceptual object of sitting (and later kneeling) with the perceptual object of the national anthem (in song), Kaepernick succeeded in gaining controversy and attention, without succeeding in redefining the symbolic terms for large portions of the public.
In other words, the following semiotic battle raged: for Kaepernick and his supporters, the representamen of kneeling during the national anthem signified the object of protest of police brutality through the interpretant of the media and their own explanations. However, for a large portion of the public, the same representamen signified the object of national disrespect, particularly for the military, through the interpretant of the history and tradition of the national anthem as a symbol.
Tangled Semiotic Threads
If that weren’t complicated enough, the threads continue to tangle. On the one hand, you could follow the trend of removing the perceptual symbol from the perceptual actor, and how Kaepernick’s actions became part of the repertoire of civil disobedience for athletes. This, while important to recognize for semiotics, is fairly obvious as a phenomenon. More interesting, however, is following the thread in examining how Kaepernick himself became a symbol of the protests he initiated. Over the course of the controversy, Kaepernick became the representamen, signifying objection to police brutality and national disrespect depending on the interpretant. Support or dissent from either of these ideas could be signified through purchase or burning of Kaepernick’s jersey. In this way, Kaepernick’s jersey replaced him as the representamen in this symbolic system and the perceptual actions of burning to show the “object” of dissent and purchasing to show the “object” of support through the interpretant of public performance.
For two years, this public discourse appeared to meet a semblance of symbolic symbiosis until Nike decided to explode this symbolism with one simple marketing move: releasing a commercial with this accompanying ad:
From ABC / originally posted to Kaepernick’s Twitter account on Sept. 3, 2018
By juxtaposing Kaepernick as representamen with their own brand, Nike superseded Kaepernick as the latest symbol to represent the double-sided coin of objection to police brutality and national disrespect in public discourse. Although Nike never engaged in discourse with the words of Francis Scott Key, they inherited the implications of all the previous perceptual objects through their symbolic affirmation of Kaepernick. A new slew of perceptual actions pertaining to the Nike brand have followed to signify objects of dissent and support. Most notably, cutting out the Nike logo from apparel serves as a new representamen of patriotism and dissent from the ideals of Nike and Kaepernick.
I suppose one could understand this symbolic story through a number of different philosophical lenses. But Peirce’s heuristic, with its wide range for evaluating symbolic action and its design for the use of all symbols, is a particularly useful approach. (Chandler 2017). This example proves especially helpful in understanding how symbolic processes allow us to “both produce and understand (interpret) all the forms of expression and technical mediation that we live in and with every day” (Irvine, Draft).
While Nike’s stock allegedly dropped as a result of this ad, it symbolically aligns the company with the right side of the media’s hot or not function. At worst it will prove a temporary setback for the mega-brand. And at its core, it showcases an exciting semiotic circus that demonstrates the usefulness of C.S. Peirce’s model.
Davis, Chandler. 2017. Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge.
Irvine, Martin. Draft. Introduction to Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, Semiotics, and Technology.
Klein, Christopher. 2014. 9 Things You May Not Know About “The Star-Spangled Banner” –
HISTORY. History.Com. https://www.history.com/news/9-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-star-spangled-banner, accessed September 10, 2018.