Last year, San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided he’d had enough. During the August 14, preseason game against the Houston Texans, Kaepernick sat on the bench during the national anthem. He did it again on August 20. No one noticed. It was an August 26 tweet from SB Nation reporter Jennifer Lee Chan that caught the nation’s attention. A tweet that had nothing to do with Kaepernick’s protest.
The picture above started it all. Here, Kaepernick (circled in yellow) can be seen sitting on the 49er’s bench during the National Anthem and for whatever reason, NFL fans, zoomed in on the image, saw Kap on the bench and lost their shit.
If you’re unfamiliar with what NFL players normally do during the national anthem, just refer to the photo above. They stand, remove their helmets, face the flag in the stadium and look serious. This makes spectators unexplainably patriotic. No one has questioned it, until Kaepernick came along.
I’m not saying Kap was the first athlete to bring attention to racial injustices in America, he wasn’t. Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali did so as well. Even in recent history, Serena Williams, Lebron James and five Los Angeles Rams players have spoken about instances of police brutality and racism in America.
So why is Kaepernick being persecuted so heavily? Why is he still unsigned? Even teams that could really use him (I’m looking at you Indianapolis–full disclosure, this is my home team I root for) are acting like he doesn’t exist.
What did Kap do that was so unforgivable, so vile that his career is imploding right before our eyes? He did what polite racists have been asking marginalized folks to do for decades: silently protest. He didn’t interrupt any of the 16 games the 49ers played last season, he showed up to practice and as far as I can tell, did what he was told as it relates to football.
The problem is, he did it consistently. He’s still doing it. He’s speaking out on the inequalities in America, he started a program to help youth understand their rights when dealing with police. He even travelled to Ghana to learn more about where he came from. Those who oppose him feel some type of way because for the last year Kaepernick has consistently shown them where his loyalty lies; and even though he says he is committed to football, he is just as committed to using his platform for good. This infuriates his haters.
This isn’t new, most athletes who speak on human rights issues get an influx of comments on social media telling them to “stick to sports.” But why should athletes–who literally put their bodies on the line for their career–stay silent about what’s going on in the world just to please closeted racist fans? It’s not realistic.
In fact, it’s not realistic for any of us to solely stick to what we’re the best at and never comment on anything that doesn’t have to do with said thing we’re good at. If that were the case, there’d be no need for us to vote in elections, testify in court or serve jury duty. None of us were put on this Earth to stay silent about the injustices around us.
What’s even more disturbing about this situation–as sports commentators Shannon Sharpe, Bob Kravitz and many others have already pointed out–is that all Kap did was take a knee. He took a knee while Ray Rice, dragged and beat his now wife on camera. He took a knee, while Ben Roethlisberger allegedly raped a woman; and while Ray Lewis was involved in the murder of two men. All of these men faced public scrutiny, but they didn’t lose their jobs. Lewis was even named Super Bowl XXXV MVP the following year. They were not blackballed from the NFL; they have all been able to return to the field with ease. Meanwhile, Kaepernick’s football career might be over because he had the nerve to take a knee for 16 weeks.
Something doesn’t add up.
When athletes and activists speak out against injustices they’re usually critiqued pretty harshly; they’re also usually praised long after they’re gone by the very people once disgusted by their behavior (see far right white folks praising MLK every January 50 years after the FBI considered him a danger to society). I have a feeling in a few decades Kaepernick will be lauded for how he unequivocally condemned the treatment of Black Americans and people of color. I just hope it doesn’t cost him his current career.
It’s easy for people to tweet their stance on human rights, miss a day of work in protest or write blog posts denouncing broken systems like I do. But Kaepernick has made the ultimate sacrifice, and he’s not backing down. Someone with that type of commitment to equality shouldn’t be ridiculed for his beliefs, he should be commended. And he will be, but probably not anytime soon.