It has been one month since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided not to stand during the national anthem before a preseason NFL game against the Green Bay Packers, stating, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Four weeks and it is still the story dominating football as his protest gains followers and detractors with each passing day. He might be the most disliked player in the league, but he’s also become the most talked-about athlete in American sports. It doesn’t make a difference whether or not his team had a game or not; you can’t deny Kaepernick and his protest has become one of the biggest stories of 2016.
And his influence is growing.
First there were people who doubted his intentions, who said he’s just a spoiled rich athlete. He countered that by donating $1 million to organizations who are fighting racial injustice and police brutality. Everybody from Donald Trump to Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney weighed in. Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka told him to “get the hell out” of America. Tim Tebow, the Heisman-winning quarterback whose short NFL career has turned into a stint in minor league baseball – and who was best-known for also taking a knee of his own – said of Kaepernick’s protest, “It’s all about standing for it the right way.” Kid Rock, who has been criticized in the past for flying the Confederate flag at his concerts, offered up even less-nuanced thoughts on the quarterback.
Kaepernick, meanwhile, has remained steadfast. “I’ve been very blessed to be in this position and be able to make the kind of money I do,” he told reporters after a recent game. “I have to help these communities. It’s not right that they’re not put in the position to succeed or given those opportunities to succeed.”
Other athletes from the NFL, college sports and soccer have shown solidarity by either taking a knee or raising a fist during national anthem. The talk before the NBA season starts is how basketball players will also join in the protest. This past weekend, Kaepernick visited players from Castlemont High School before their game. The team gained attention after players kneeled with their fists in the air during the anthem. “You are important, you make a difference, this matters. Everything you do matters,” Kaepernick told them.
Kaepernick came to Oakland, CA. He kneeled on one knee, players laid on their back with hands up during the Anthem. pic.twitter.com/Cae4sTopac
— Kirk Morrison (@kirkmorrison) September 24, 2016
The existence of black athletes in American sports has always been a complicated one. On one hand, you have predominantly white fanbases telling them to just “shut up and play,” and on the other, there’s an idea that if you’re black in America and you have a voice, and/or money, you are obligated to participate in the uplift. As the protests continue, few players have come to experience this quite like Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, who has come under fire for what some people see as not speaking out enough.
Even though Newton has struggled with his place in the current state of athlete activism, many fans and critics fail to take into account that the sport he plays doesn’t offer guaranteed contracts (and NFL players don’t get paid during the off-season). Any endorsement is a welcomed and cherished stream of income to fall back on when Newton’s abilities start to fail him. Despite all of that, the recent police shootings and protests in Charlotte, where Newton plays, appears to have brought out some bit of public retrospection.
“I have a son and a daughter that I’m responsible for. So how would I be if one day they come home and there’s no more daddy?”
Maybe Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall has the answer that Newton is thinking of.
Marshall, a fraternity brother and college teammate of Kaepernick’s, took a knee during the national anthem before the NFL season opening game against Newton’s Carolina Panthers. Because of that, he lost two of his endorsement deals. Even the language used by the companies, Air Academy Federal Credit Union and CenturyLink, were carefully worded to show their disapproval of Marshall’s stance.
“We completely respect Brandon Marshall’s personal decision and right to take an action to support something in which he strongly believes. America is anchored in the right of individuals to express their beliefs,” CenturyLink said in a statement. “While we acknowledge Brandon’s right, we also believe that whatever issues we face, we also occasionally must stand together to show our allegiance to our common bond as a nation. In our view, the national anthem is one of those moments. For this reason, while we wish Brandon the best this season, we are politely terminating our agreement with him.”
There was some support for Marshall, music mogul Russell Simmons offered him an endorsement deal with a company he owns, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that when athletes – especially black athletes – speak up against injustice, the results can have an impact on their careers beyond cozy spokesperson gigs. Such was the case with former Chicago Bulls guard Craig Hodges who became a pariah after speaking out. Hodges, a member of two of the Chicago Bulls 1990s championship teams (1991 and ’92, respectively) and winner of the NBA All-Star weekend three point shootout three times, famously wore a dashiki to the White House and openly questioned why the NBA had very few black coaches while the league was overwhelming black. Even though teams wouldn’t say why no NBA team tried to pick up Hodges, who was one of the best shooters of his generation. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf didn’t stand during the national anthem and Chris Kluwe spoke out in support of LGBTQ rights. They stepped out of line, and not only did the not play again, Abdul-Rauf lost millions. Kluwe became a pariah in NFL circles.
Hodges tried to take action. He sued the NBA. Billy McKinney, then-director of player personnel for the now defunct Seattle SuperSonics – who is – was quoted in the lawsuit as having an interest in signing Hodges to later back out, telling Hodges he could do nothing because “brothers have families, if you know what I mean.” Kluwe went on tryout after tryout after he was let go by the Minnesota Vikings, but got nowhere. He told the Los Angeles Times that the NFL wants “someone who won’t talk.” Sports, the people who watch them, the companies that pay hand over fist to advertise during them and the owners that control the leagues, would like nothing more than for the players to do one thing, and that’s play.
But the fact remains that the football field and the real world are different places. Since Kaepernick sat for the national anthem during that preseason game, at least 15 unarmed black people have been shot by police officers, leading to unrest in Charlotte, North Carolina and Tulsa, Oklahoma, while the nation continues to condemn a football player for sitting and speaking his mind.
Kaepernick and his protest continues to be a daily news item, but the reality away from the football field, the thing he is being condemned for protesting, is the frightening reality that real people face every single day.