On August 14, 2016, Colin Kaepernick quietly sat behind his teammates on the bench while the National Anthem played. He remained on the bench, alone, during the anthem at the following game on August 20, 2016. On August 26, 2016 Kaepernick was spotted sitting between two coolers in a photo that Jennifer Lee Chan (San Francisco 49ers beat writer) tweeted out. That is when his protest reached a national stage. When asked why he chose to sit, Kaepernick explained, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” This is why he sat.
Opposition to his protest swelled immediately as some believed this was disrespectful to those that serve in the military.
Former Seahawks player and Green Beret Nate Boyer wrote an open letter to Kaepernick expressing his concern over him sitting on the bench saying, “I’m not judging you for standing up for what you believe in. It’s your inalienable right. What you are doing takes a lot of courage, and I’d be lying if I said I knew what it was like to walk around in your shoes. I’ve never had to deal with prejudice because of the color of my skin, and for me to say I can relate to what you’ve gone through is as ignorant as someone who’s never been in a combat zone telling me they understand what it’s like to go to wa0r. Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it.” This act, acknowledging what Kaepernick was protesting and respectfully sharing his opinion opened the door to a dialogue between the two: a Black man and a military man. Boyer said of the discussion, “We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates. Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.” From that point on, out of clarity and out of respect, Kaepernick took a knee. “We were talking to [Boyer] about how can we get the message back on track and not take away from the military, not take away from fighting for our country, but keep the focus on what the issues really are. And as we talked about it, we came up with taking a knee. Because there are issues that still need to be addressed and it was also a way to show more respect to the men and women who fight for this country.” This is why he kneeled.
Just to be clear, six days after his protest garnered national attention he clarified that his actions were not about disrespecting the flag or the military as he made the necessary adjustments to refocus the attention on the issues at hand.
Here it is, 13 months after Kaepernick began his peaceful protest and what has changed? Truthfully, the only thing that has changed is Kaepernick’s employment status and the body count of police brutality victims.
In his absence from the league he’s been busy…walking the walk. He made a pledge to donate $1 million “to organizations working in oppressed communities” and thus far has donated $900,000 to various organizations detailed on his website kaepernick7.com.
Kaepernick, an activist athlete, over the course of the year has emulated what can only be described as Muhammad Ali-type courage. Dave Zirin’s piece, “I Just Wanted to Be Free: The Radical Reverberations of Muhammad Ali” explained it best saying, “What Muhammad Ali did—in a culture that worships sports and violence as well as a culture that idolizes black athletes while criminalizing Black skin—was redefine what it meant to be tough and collectivize the very idea of courage.” No, Kaepernick is not Ali, and this is his own unique way of making a statement; but like Ali, it takes a particular type of courage to stand at the crosshairs of controversy.
Though the powers that be have worked tirelessly to warp his narrative, Kaepernick has remained consistent with his message. The message has always been about disrupting the American tradition of police brutality against Black people and people of color which is a stem of systematic oppression. The “outrage” is simply a convenient way to ignore the message. Kaepernick sacrificed his career by using his platform to give voice to the voiceless. That, in itself, was far bigger than football.
On September 22, 2017 at a campaign rally for Sen. Luther Strange in Huntsville, Alabama, the 45th President of the United States, amid multiple crises due to natural disasters including the destruction of Puerto Rico, amid tensions being at an all-time high with North Korea who believes a declaration of War has been made, amid Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the presidential election, needed a win so he pandered to a predominately White audience saying, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired!’ You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it. They’re friends of mine! They don’t know it. They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
This statement, just as it was intended to, fired up the crowd. It also fired up the silent majority of the NFL who spent the last 13 months mum on the ever-present issue of “police brutality.” President 45’s criticism of the owners suddenly unhinged everyone’s knees and elbows. During the following Sunday and Monday night games, team owners, coaches, and players locked arms, took a knee, or remained in the locker room in protest of President 45’s criticisms. And just like that, a moment was missed. A history of systematic oppression and police brutality against Black people and people of color wasn’t enough for the NFL to take notice. The moment someone tried to tell them what they could or couldn’t do…well…that was the tipping point. This is why the NFL’s actions, though they mimicked Kaepernick’s physical stance, missed the opportunity to stand with Kaepernick against America’s oppressive zeitgeist.
It’s important to know that players standing on the field during the National Anthem for these displays of “patriotism” are a fairly recent trend. In August of 2016 NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy confirmed that players standing on the field together for the national anthem only began in 2009. “As you know, the NFL has a long tradition of patriotism. Players are encouraged but not required to stand for the anthem.” Arizona Senator Jeff Flake and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain issued report that revealed the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) paid professional teams handsomely to have players onto the field/court during the National Anthem as a military marketing tool. “Contrary to the public statements made by DOD and the NFL, the majority of the contracts — 72 of the 122 contracts we analyzed — clearly show that DOD paid for patriotic tributes at professional football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer games. These paid tributes included on-field color guard, enlistment and reenlistment ceremonies, performances of the national anthem, full-field flag details, ceremonial first pitches͕ and puck drops.”
These displays of “patriotism” aren’t even organic but an orchestrated effort by the DOD. It’s problematic to imply that patriotism is limited to military involvement. Patriotism comes in many forms. A true patriot would demand more of this country. A true patriot would not silence a fellow countryman who is simply trying to ensure that the rights and amendments that the founders of this country laid out are being upheld for every citizen. The United States Declaration of Independence states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” If this is true then Kaepernick’s protest, which simply demands that this country honor these founding principles, is as patriotic as it gets. So, while this story is playing out on football fields across the nation, it is, and it has always been bigger than football.
Arms were locked, knees were taken, and statements were released but turn to any sports radio station, read any comments section and the same tired rhetoric of “stick to sports” or “they’re disrespecting the flag” and a host of racially offensive or apathetic attitudes still run rampant. Kaepernick’s message once again has fallen on deaf ears and by not denouncing the injustice directly, the NFL missed the opportunity to be an ally and instead muddied his message even further because almost doesn’t count.
The opportunity is still there and right now the NFL is at a crossroads. Just as this is so much bigger than football, it’s bigger than the act of kneeling during the anthem (which is a constitutionally protected right). The NFL has the chance to be a vessel of change and amplify Kaepernick’s message (ending the oppressive traditions that affect Black and Brown communities) by unequivocally voicing support of the effort. Here’s hoping the powers that be choose to be on the right side of history.