The former San Francisco 49er had made headlines around the world last season for kneeling during the National Anthem. The offseason had seen a raging debate about the fact that he hadn’t been signed from free agency, which boiled down to whether teams were justified in deciding that his controversial protest outweighed his talent. Despite some comically atrocious performances by quarterbacks on NFL rosters in the first two weeks of the season, Kaepernick remained unsigned. A few fellow players said publicly that he deserved a roster spot somewhere, and some had taken up his protest, but it remained a niche question, and the cause to which Kaepernick wished to draw attention—police brutality against people of color—had faded a bit from the headlines, overwhelmed by the onslaught of Trump-related news.
Then came President Trump’s riff during a rally in Alabama Friday night.
“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,’” Trump said. “‘He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
Many barrels of pixels have been spilled already trying to analyze the political implications for Trump of the spat, but just as important, and perhaps less recognized, is what a coup this is for Kaepernick. Over the course of a single weekend, Kaepernick was transformed from a down-and-out athlete into an icon of protest. What loftier goal can a symbolic protest like Kaepernick’s kneeling have than to capture the attention of the president of the United States and to dominate the news?
Yes, the conversation could be more meaningfully focused on the actual issue of racism than it is. It’s subject to the Trump distortion effect, in which every story the president touches becomes about him. Yet much of the pushback has been focused on race, and the uncomfortable specter of a president who hesitated to condemn white supremacists picking a fight with black athletes. Besides, Kaepernick isn’t a theorist or a policymaker. He is, in addition to being an elite athlete, an activist, and the point of protests like his is grabbing attention.