The NFL couldn’t keep Colin Kaepernick off the field
“One day, maybe my youngest, who is in second grade, is going to open up a history book and he’ll read about Colin,” Phil Sanchez, Colin Kaepernick’s high school guidance counselor, told Kent Babb this summer. “And it won’t have anything to do with throwing a touchdown.”
The notion of Kaepernick as an American historical figure was cemented this weekend. Among NFL players, the preferred method of protest — taking a knee — and the impetus to use the national anthem as a platform for expression traces back to Kaepernick. It was a momentous weekend, and it was shaped primarily by someone who wasn’t there. NFL teams may not have signed him to play quarterback this season, but they could not keep Kaepernick off the field.
Donald Trump prompted mass player protests during the national anthem with his caustic remarks Friday night and tweets all day Saturday. He left players with little choice but to respond, and many players took their cues from Kaepernick.
Last summer, Kaepernick sat on the bench during the national anthem before a San Francisco 49ers preseason game. Nobody seemed to notice until he did it again, and then again. He explained to observant reporter Steve Wyche that he could not stand and salute a flag that represented a country where inequality and police brutality existed. He sat in the aftermath of the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana. A Green Beret and former collegiate long snapper, Nate Boyer, reached out to Kaepernick and explained kneeling would be a more respectful form of protest, and so Kaepernick started to kneel. It has become a defining pose for NFL players, an act the country will remember years from now more than any pass, run or tackle this season.
When Kaepernick first knelt, teammate and 49ers safety Eric Reid joined him. “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture,” Reid wrote Monday in a New York Times op-ed. “I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” Reid still has a job in the NFL. Kaepernick became a symbol because he was first, and he does not.
“I can’t find words that appropriately express how heartbroken I am to see the constant smears against Colin, a person who helped start the movement with only the very best of intentions,” Reid went on to write. “We are talking about a man who helped to orchestrate a commercial planeful of food and supplies for famine-stricken Somalia. A man who has invested his time and money into needy communities here at home. A man I am proud to call my brother, who should be celebrated for his courage to seek change on important issues. Instead, to this day, he is unemployed and portrayed as a radical un-American who wants to divide our country.
Anybody who has a basic knowledge of football knows that his unemployment has nothing to do with his performance on the field. It’s a shame that the league has turned its back on a man who has done only good. I am aware that my involvement in this movement means that my career may face the same outcome as Colin’s. But to quote the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” And I choose not to betray those who are being oppressed.”
Kaepernick created, among his peers, a way of thinking that took on a life of its own and infiltrated even a staunchly conservative league. The majority of NFL owners responded to Trump’s comments about player protests, which started with Kaepernick, by criticizing Trump. Many of them demonstrated alongside players.
The suddenness and vastness of the shift cannot be overstated. A couple of weeks ago, NFL owners just wanted protests to go away, lest they interfere with fan experience and, therefore, profit. “I’d like to believe that once the season starts for real and you’re not in preseason that it’ll sort of fade away because it won’t have the novelty of last year,” one member of an NFL ownership group said this summer. Billionaires tend not to change the behaviors and attitudes that made them billionaires. But there was Jerry Jones — Jerry Jones — locking arms with his players and kneeling before the playing of the anthem.
“Colin Kaepernick is this era’s, this Fourth Wave of athlete activism’s Muhammad Ali,” University of Cal-Berkeley sociology professor Harry Edwards wrote in an email last week. “And now, as was the case with Ali’s banishment from boxing, the MOVEMENT has expanded far, far beyond both the issue of Kaep taking a Knee and, most significantly, the capacity, much less the ability, of the NFL ‘[powers] that be’ to manage the situation.”