Take a second to remember Colin Kaepernick, the football player. His early career was the stuff that sports dreams were made of. After attending the University of Nevada-Reno, where he became the only Division I FBS Quarterback to reach over 10,000 passing yards and over 4,000 rushing yards in a single career, he was signed by the San Francisco 49ers in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft. Kaepernick spent his rookie year as the backup for then-Niners starting QB Alex Smith. When Smith was injured in week 10 of the 2012 season, the Milwaukee-born, Turlock, Calif.-bred gunslinger was thrust into the #1 spot, where he would remain for the rest of the season.
Kaepernick’s role as a dynamic dual threat quarterback—making plays both with his passing and running—brought an excitement to the NFL that hadn’t been seen since Michael Vick, with his “read option” offense that decimated opposing defenses all season in 2012. The young QB led the Niners to Super Bowl XLVII, where they would fall to the Baltimore Ravens in the closing moments of a 34-31 game. While he didn’t emerge with a ring, the future seemed bright for Kaepernick as both his on-field talents and off-field appeal began to blossom. Notably, he had endorsements with Beats headphones and popular video game company Electronic Arts.
Everything changed on August 26, 2016, however, when Kaepernick took a seat on the 49ers sideline during a performance of the National Anthem at a pre-season game, and explained later that night that he would continue to abstain from “showing pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” Controversy ensued immediately, and grew week after week—as did the QB’s now-signature Afro, which certainly incensed many of his detractors even further.
Just over a year later, the now 29-year-old athlete is arguably the most polarizing figure in professional sports, and a free agent without a team over a month into the 2017-2018 season. His jersey is the 39th highest selling one in the NFL, making him the only player in the top 50 who isn’t currently signed to a team. Meanwhile, Kaepernick has spent his time off the field traveling the country, continuing to give both his time and money to the less fortunate and pushing the world to be cognizant of how the United States treats Black people.
However, it stands to reason that many people have lost sight of Kaepernick’s original goal, and perhaps they’ve lost sight of Kaepernick himself—thanks to none other than Donald Trump and his infamous Twitter fingers.
It certainly shouldn’t surprise anyone that the election of a man beloved by white supremacist groups—who often bypasses dog whistles in favor of clear, unapologetic hate-speak—would increase the hostility towards someone who has forced a dialogue about race into a beloved national pastime. The sitting president is, perhaps, the most powerful living testament to all that is wrong with the United States; he arrived in the White House thanks to the confluence of bigotry, sexism, celebrity culture and misguided nationalism—with a little help, allegedly from Vladimir Putin and computers ‘putin fake news.
Kaepernick’s protest (nor the Movement for Black Lives that inspired it) has never centered one person, but instead, challenges the anti-black racism and police violence that Black Americans are consistently forced to contend with in this country. He understood, better than a lot of folks, it seems, that bold, brash white supremacy did not first enter the national stage with this administration. Yet, it took the bullying behavior of that unhinged, unqualified POTUS—and the actions of NBA superstars Steph Curry and LeBron James—to push the league to move towards taking a stand.
When the president made his now-infamous comments about Kaepernick and other athletes who have exercised their right to free speech, he helped turn the spotlight away from police violence and far too many stakeholders don’t seem to be able to recognize that.
In the games immediately following Trump’s tirade, a significant number of players, coaches and other NFL stakeholders chose to either protest the anthem or make a passive gesture of ‘solidarity’ by linking their arms together while participating (a gesture so ineffective that the president actually celebrated it), as former protest detractors such as Ray Lewis and LeSean McCoy have also begun to sing another tune—but they haven’t found the right notes just yet.
If the NFL only hits back at President Trump, they aren’t standing ‘with’ anyone—they’re merely standing up for themselves. In fact, one could argue that Trump’s anti-First Amendment tirade and subsequent attack on the “failing” league actually decreased the risk involved with protesting the National Anthem. People who may not understand or agree with Kaepernick’s advocacy for the Black community may recognize the need to stand up to a president who also represents a threat to women, Jewish people, the LGBT community, people in need of healthcare, immigrants or other such groups of people with which whom they actually identify and/or see worthy of their support.
Make no mistake, the increased dialogue around Kaepernick’s activism isn’t a bad thing, nor are we unclear on the charge to call out the behavior of the current administration at every turn. However, it is important to remember what brought us to this place to begin with and remains to be seen if the league can see beyond it’s own battles with President Trump to invite Kaepernick back into a space that has been forever changed by his presence last season, and his absence in the current one—and just how he would respond to such an invitation if it were extended to him.
After having experienced the bigotry and racism of the NFL more directly than any other player in recent memory, will Kaepernick still see fit to put his life on the line in order to put points on the board and dollars in the pockets of the same owners who discarded him until they, too, felt the wrath of President Trump? Should he? Is his football career a martyr sacrificed bring the league to it’s own knees and force them to exercise their own demons?
Following his first protest, Kaepernick told reporters, “”If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
We must not forget what the one-time NFL star sacrificed to spark this new wave of athletic activism, and we certainly cannot allow anyone to dismiss his critique of violent policing and structural inequality because it’s more socially acceptable to focus on the obvious bad guy with the small hands and smaller approval rating. Otherwise, the need to kneel will persist on any given Sunday for years and years to come.