As a lifelong 49er fan, I have been disheartened and disappointed by Colin Kaepernick’s declining play on the field since his breakout year in 2012. His meteoric rise to stardom that year has been nearly matched by his precipitous descent to mediocrity. Kaepernick, more than anyone else in the 49er organization, represents the dramatic turnaround the team has undergone from perennial Super Bowl contender to perennial bottom-dweller in the short span of a few years. I once named my fantasy football team after Kaepernick. Now, I wouldn’t even waste a late-round draft pick on him.

Throughout the NFL preseason, Kaepernick has elected to sit (or, on a recent occasion, kneel) during the playing of the national anthem in protest of what he describes as the country’s oppression of black people and people of color. The national reaction to his protest has been extremely—and tellingly—polarized, with many praising him as a courageous American hero and just as many others denouncing him as unpatriotic or immature. His jersey sales have skyrocketed to surpass any other NFL player, and everyone, it seems, has a strong opinion regarding both the method and the substance of his protest.

Kaepernick’s career has been a study in contrasts. In particular, it has presented stark contrasts between potential and production, promise and performance. Kaepernick has shown us both the heights of athletic excellence and the frustrations of decline and defeat. Because of his particularly contradictory and dramatic athletic odyssey—to say nothing of his own personal history and background—Kaepernick is the perfect person to engage in the protests for which he has recently become both famous and infamous. His own career parallels the complex, ambiguous, and confusing significance of his protest.

America’s Greatness

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

Kaepernick’s protest has been vehemently criticized by many on the basis of its unpatriotic and anti-military implications. The national anthem is one of the quintessential expressions of pride in our identity as Americans, as well as a symbol of the sacrifices made by members of the Armed Forces and their families in defending our nation against foreign enemies. To honor the memory of those who have given their lives in the service of their country, we must appreciate why our country should be preserved and why we should take pride in our American identity. Patriotism always contains a crucial sub-rational, emotional, or passionate element, but this essential sub-rational element needs to be inspired and supported by a more rational understanding of why an American identity is worth clinging to and valuing in the first place.

Most of us today think that things such as equality, justice, liberty, fairness, or freedom are valuable, but we no longer have a good sense of what any of these ideas mean. Our attachment to them has become largely submerged below the rational level. We have a sentimental preference for equality, freedom, and justice, but neither ordinary citizens nor politicians and academics can clearly articulate what these ideas mean and why they are important. Our skeptical, post-modern, relativist, anti-foundationalist worldview simply cannot sustain a rational justification for any of these “values.” In America, we no longer endorse the reasons for the Revolution; we no longer endorse the reasons for the abolition of slavery; and we no longer endorse the justification for the Civil Rights Movement.

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again,” but very few Americans have the faintest idea of where American greatness lies. Frederick Douglass, in an action similar in some ways to Kaepernick’s sitting during the national anthem, devoted his famous Fourth of July Oration (1852) to an expression both of America’s greatness and of the unsettling ways in which America has always tragically fallen short of this greatness in practice. Far from mouthing the platitudes of American “values” like freedom and equality in our modern-day style, Douglass pointedly and specifically endorsed the principles of the Declaration of Independence, stating that “the principles contained in that instrument are saving principles.” Douglass movingly exhorted his audience to “cling to [the Declaration], and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.”

Douglass’ advice was heeded a century later by Martin Luther King, Jr., who in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail invoked the very same Declaration principles of natural morality to justify his policy of civil disobedience in the face of unjust laws. According to King’s admirably clear formulation,

A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

America’s greatness lies in its association with and devotion to the “saving principles” embraced by Douglass and King. This concept of a higher morality “uplifts human personality” and human dignity, and it sets limits and guidelines for human behavior.

America’s Shortcomings

These saving principles are the equivalent in American history to Kaepernick’s 2012 season—they make a dazzling promise of sustainable greatness. No other nation in the world is united and defined primarily by its commitment to a particular ideal or principle. Unfortunately, there is also a clear American historical equivalent to Kaepernick’s more recent failure to live up to his unique potential.

In the same Fourth of July Oration in which Frederick Douglass praised the American Declaration of Independence for its “saving principles,” he also harshly condemned the failure of Americans at his time to live up to these principles in their personal actions and public policies. According to Douglass’ assessment,

The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. It saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a by word to a mocking earth.

Should we accuse Douglass of anti-Americanism for saying such things on the Fourth of July? Should we convict him of an appalling lack of patriotism? Perhaps Justice Roger Taney of the Dred Scott decision would have given a more patriotic speech. While Douglass was vehement and unrelenting in his condemnation of the pervasive failure of American practice to live up to American principles, Taney gave us this glowing assessment of the Declaration’s authors: “the men who framed this declaration were great men … and incapable of asserting principles inconsistent with those on which they were acting.” Taney’s outlandish claim should lead us to a clear realization of the truth of its opposite: namely, that anyone with principles frequently acts against these principles in practice. The only way to avoid hypocrisy is to be unprincipled or unreflective. And this holds true for nations just as it does for individuals.

One need not take a particular side in recent political battles to acknowledge that no one among us is perfect. If no one among us is perfect, America isn’t perfect. Racism persists. Even where it has seemingly been overcome, many of the preconditions for racism will always reside in human nature. We will never conquer racism and injustice because, in Tupac’s profound words, “that’s just the way it is.” Human nature is unchangeable, and it is unchangeably flawed. And if America is made up of human beings, America will never live up to its ideals of freedom, equality, and justice.

American political history mirrors, in many ways, Colin Kaepernick’s football career: exceptional promise coupled with often disappointing performance. In the case of American history, of course, the story has not been one of uniform disappointment, and great progress has been made on some fronts. If, though, America is to avoid following the impending fate of Kaepernick’s football career, we would do well to remember and embrace the meaning of American greatness while candidly acknowledging ongoing American shortcomings.