Bruce Springsteen has been touring for most of this year, breaking records for the length of his sets and reminding everyone what a great and energetic artist he is, even at the age of 66.
I went to his show at Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey last Thursday [Met Life if you prefer] and was struck by a few things that made me ponder and reflect upon some of the prevailing sentiments prevalent in America today.
These thoughts are particularly pertinent in the same week Donald Trump doubled down on his right-wing rhetoric on immigration in Phoenix, Arizona on Wednesday evening and San Francisco '49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked national debate following his decision to sit down during the national anthem prior to a pre-season game against Green Bay last Friday.
Kaepernick said he refused "to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." And, as others noted, the third verse of the anthem, which is not typically sung, does contain a reference to slavery that has been questioned before.
There was a predictable backlash to Kaepernick’s stand (or sit), with many knee-jerk reactions and commentators disparaging him as un-American and not a patriot. Trump himself said ominously that maybe Kaepernick should "find a country that works better for him."
But Kaepernick told reporters: "I'm not anti-American. I love America. I love people. That's why I'm doing this. I want to help make America better. Having these conversations helps everybody have a better understanding of where everybody is coming from."
Many commentators also pointed out that the debate indicated it’s OK for Trump to say America isn’t great, but seemingly not other people such as Kaepernick.
Kaepernick is an articulate and persuasive speaker and media performer, and navigated all the media coverage following his protest extremely effectively. When the next round of pre-season games kicked off Thursday, Kaepernick was joined in his protest by fellow player Eric Reid, this time taking a knee, and Seattle Seahawks’ cornerback Jeremy Lane, who sat down.
Back at Meadowlands, it was a rousing but sometimes confusing experience to be at the Springsteen gig. The New Jersey audience was the least diverse group of people I have stood amongst in years, if not ever, being 99% white, and not representative of the ethnic and culturally diverse population of the state, especially in urban areas.
Having said this, these were definitely Springsteen's people, born into the same hard-working industrial communities that he himself was in nearby Long Branch, the inspiration for lyrics that highlight the blood, sweat, and tears inherent in the struggles typically associated with daily American working-class life. Bruce's 90-year-old mom Adele was even in attendance at this gig.
It was in stark contrast to a trip to Yankee Stadium I made the following night for a baseball game, at which the audience was completely diverse and totally representative of neighboring New York’s population – and, frankly, was much the better for it.
There was more diversity on stage or, to be honest, even at a Donald Trump rally than there was at the Meadowlands last Thursday – that was until the law enforcement, fire officers, and construction workers appeared at the side of the stage toward the end of the gig in preparation for taking down the stage set overnight, or you went inside to purchase food and drink from the concessions within the stadium.
There was also a jarring note during Springsteen’s sometimes controversial song American Skin (41 Shots), about the killing of Amadou Diallo in New York City in 1999 by police, first performed in 2000. The officers mistook the unarmed Diallo for a serial rapist and discharged 41 shots, hitting him 19 times and killing him, when they thought he was reaching into his jacket for a gun.
The song contains the line "You can get killed just for living in your American skin," causing much ire among the NYPD, which called for a boycott of Springsteen’s shows at Madison Square Garden.
When this line was sung, a guy in the crowd behind me, who was maybe a law enforcement officer or at least closely connected, shouted angrily "F**k you, you do the job," mirroring similar protests at The Boss’s shows years earlier.
It made me wonder whether the guy had been listening to Springsteen’s lyrics over the years and whether he knew what The Boss was all about.
But that’s not the only contradiction at Bruce’s shows.
He no longer performs Born in the U.S.A., for example, because while everyone perceives it as the ultimate all-American song, it is actually a diatribe against the treatment of Vietnam veterans and the effect the war had on America.
In his 1995 track Youngstown, Springsteen sings about the blight left behind in a working-class Ohio town following the complete destruction of the steel industry in the 1970s.
It was in places such as Youngstown where the cannonballs were built that helped the Union win the civil war, and the bombs and tanks that helped win the great wars of the 20th century.
Then its men went off to fight in Korea and Vietnam and came home to find their community being decimated by mill closures and the migration of its very heart to cheaper manufacturing bases elsewhere around the globe.
Ironically, these working-class, once-Democrat strongholds are now prime territory for Trump’s form of rabble-rousing, and areas he must win if he is to be successful in the election.
And I couldn’t help wondering how many of the crowd at the Meadowlands are also Trump supporters, despite the tenor of Springsteen’s lyrics and his well-known sympathy for the Democratic cause.
Back in the world of sports, Kaepernick stated his was not a point aimed at supporting one side or the other on the mainstream political spectrum: "The two presidential candidates we currently have also represent the issues we have in this country right now. You have Hillary [Clinton], who has called black teens or black kids super predators. You have Donald Trump, who is openly racist."
The '49ers QB is by no means the first major sports star to use his or her platform to make a stand. Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute on the medal podium at the Mexico City Games in 1968. Boxer Muhammad Ali refused the draft to go fight in Vietnam.
And in 1972, baseball legend Jackie Robinson said in his autobiography: "I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know I am a black man in a white world."
A #VeteransforKaepernick hashtag sprang up on Twitter, with many serving members of the armed forces and veterans noting that, whether you agree with his actions or not, they fought for his First Amendment right to hold and express those opinions.
It has long been a bugbear of mine that the people who tend to talk most about freedom and constitutional rights are often the same folks who spend most of their time telling other people how they should live their lives: "You can’t marry someone of the same gender [LGBT rights], you don’t have control over your own body [women’s rights], you must stand up and salute the flag."
Seahawks’ coach Pete Carroll said of Jeremy Lane’s sit-down protest: "Our team has been working at it, and we've been in the process of communicating about a lot of stuff right now. That was an individual thing. But I'm really proud of the progress we're making in the conversation, and I look forward to continuing it with our guys."
So it’s obvious this is a big issue among teams of guys who, on the whole, hail from the communities most affected by the social problems Kaepernick is attempting to highlight.
It’s kind of depressing we’re still having these conversations 44 years after Jackie Robinson’s comments, but that is the reality of modern America I’m afraid. And it’s a reality neither side of the presidential debate seems able to get to grips with in a progressive or productive manner.
I’m not by any means pretending to have all the answers. But I do think it’s vital we have the conversations and defend the right of Springsteen, Kaepernick, and yes, Donald Trump, to spark those conversations until our dying breaths – that right to open communication is what true freedom is all about.
And, by the way, it is also the underpinning of effective and authentic public relations.