In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem. Shortly after, US veteran and ex-NFL player Nate Boyer explained that kneeling was more honourable than sitting — so Kaepernick listened, and kneeling during the anthem as an act of protest became a pattern throughout the league.
When asked whether he was proud that other players in the NFL followed his protest, Kaepernick said, “This movement wasn’t for me.” In fact, on multiple occasions, Kaepernick has made it clear that the protest has nothing to do with him. On August 27, 2016, an NFL media reporter described Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the anthem as a move to “willingly immerse himself into controversy.” By describing Kaepernick’s actions as “controversy,” the writer implies that the league doesn’t care to hear players speak up and that their opinions amount to unneeded drama and distraction from the sport.
Kaepernick stood by his decision and his reasoning was quite clear. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour,” he said in 2016. “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.”
That summer had seen the deaths of numerous African-Americans at the hands of police. Delrawn Small in Brooklyn, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile in Saint Paul are just three of the African-Americans who were unjustly killed by law enforcement. And these killings made it impossible for Kaepernick to honour the United States, even if he was a professional football player.
Two and a half years later, on February 15, the NFL settled its collusion case with Kaepernick. Kaepernick had not been on an NFL roster since kneeling during the anthem, and he had filed a lawsuit against the NFL on the basis that the league had colluded to keep him unemployed. Ideally, he would make it onto the field as a quarterback once again, having proven that the league had colluded.
The settlement suggests that the league feared a guilty ruling, and while Kaepernick will undoubtedly get paid a large sum, the ultimate victory would have shown that one can be Black, openly raise awareness about police brutality, and continue playing for the NFL. A settlement does not promise a roster spot.
It is unclear whether Kaepernick’s desires remain with the NFL or are now with activism. Throughout all his activist work, he continues to train daily. His protest has remained mostly silent; news of his activism is seen in the form of other people’s tweets, shots of him in public, words of support from and similar kneeling protests by other notable athletes and political leaders, countless online articles, and a Nike ad, in which he said, “Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything.”
He has chosen to let others point out why he should still be on the football field. He has not bothered to respond to President Donald Trump’s disrespectful comments. He allowed GQ to publish a feature making him the GQCitizen of the Year in 2017, but refused to be interviewed for the article. He is now the face of Nike’s 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign. Kaepernick’s ability to keep his voice and face in the backdrop but have his name circulate all over media shows the magnitude of athlete protest.
One place where he will allow himself to be seen and heard is in front of American youth. In a 45-minute speech to children at the DREAM school in East Harlem, New York, he told students that they should not shy away from being “just in unjust places,” and that they should “confront ignorance not with ignorance, but with education.” He explained that no matter what you have to sacrifice, “if you see wrong in the world you must say that it is wrong.”
Athlete protests in the past were usually shut down quickly. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were suspended from the US track and field team after raising their fists during the anthem at the 1968 Summer Olympics.
When Muhammad Ali refused the Vietnam draft, he was sentenced to prison, stripped of his championship title, and suspended from boxing in the state of New York. The rationale was that because Ali had made millions off American viewers, there was no reason for him not to show his appreciation by joining the armed forces.
Kaepernick knows the risk he is taking as he delves further into controversy and advocacy. He intentionally keeps his voice out of the media because it is not about him. It is about others. Had Kaepernick covered the protest with his words, the conversation would eventually have revolved around him and not the issues that he hopes to help solve.
He has since donated $1 million to charity and shows no signs of stopping. Although his future on the football field remains precarious, his continued activism presents an ongoing commitment to underserved African-Americans.