It’s impossible to open a smartphone or computer right now without encountering fiery reactions to Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem.  The San Francisco 49ers quarterback staged the protest during Friday’s preseason game against Green Bay, later stating to NFL media, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

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Both backlash against and backing for Kaepernick has exploded across social media and major news networks. Teammates, commentators, celebrities and politicians are all chiming in.  The athlete held an 18 minute news conference in an attempt to explain the meaning behind the move.

Whether Kaepernick is a hero or a traitor, there is no doubt that he has started a firestorm of controversy while proving the age-old truth that actions speak louder than words.  It is one thing to voice your support for a movement, to make a speech or write a song; it is entirely another to publicly defy deep-rooted traditions such as expressing love of country and reverence toward national emblems. Right or wrong, inappropriate or germane, the impact of the athlete’s actions have resounded country-wide and will be echoing for some time to come.

Sending compelling messages through public actions has been prevalent in sports of late. With the spotlight on the Olympics this summer, many such instances took place on a worldwide stage. Consider Sam Kendricks, Team USA pole vaulter and winner of the bronze medal. In the middle of a competition, as Kendricks ran full throttle into his vault, the national anthem began to play over the loudspeaker. The athlete and Army Reservist immediately came to a screeching halt, dropped his pole, and stood at attention until the anthem had ended. His actions were an indisputable display of patriotism and respect for the flag, and elicited an outpouring of support and praise nationwide. See the moving video here.

In the same vein but causing a distinctively different reaction, Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas was severely chastised on social media because of body language interpreted as nonchalance and disregard as her team was awarded the gold medal. Douglas’ slouching posture and seemingly sullen look stood in sharp contrast to the ecstatic expressions and deferential bearing held by her teammates. The public overwhelmingly read her actions as disrespectful and indifferent in a situation which apparently called for reverence and awe.

Both Douglas and Kaepernick have asserted that their actions were, to some degree, misinterpreted. The gymnast insists she was simply overwhelmed and trying to take it all. Kaepernick’s most fervent detractors have accused him of showing disrespect to US military personnel and their families, whose dedication and sacrifice defends the very rights he has exercised. Kaepernick contends that he is supporting “the people that are being oppressed”, not slapping the face of our military heroes.

We all have personal views on patriotism, regard for national symbols, and behavior appropriate for public figures and role models. These views vary as widely as our political opinions and religious customs. But one thing we can all agree on, based on these examples, is that we communicate through actions, even more forcefully than with words. Because our actions result in reactions, it is important to be mindful of body language, facial expressions and public behavior to ensure the correct message is being transmitted.