It started last August when San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick was asked why he was sitting on the bench—he had yet to kneel—during the national anthem. He explained his actions by saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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.”
He was asked in the days ahead when he would stand again and responded, “I’ll continue to sit…. I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change, and when there’s significant change—and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way it’s supposed to—I’ll stand.”
This sparked a remarkably political NFL season, where Kaepernick’s actions were replicated on football fields, volleyball courts, soccer pitches, and even by cheerleaders and marching bands around the country. For four solid months, Colin Kaepernick kept this protest going in the face of death threats, relentless criticism, and the endangerment of his livelihood.
Now he says he will stand, and it has been shocking—although perhaps not surprising—to see the media backlash. The responses have been unified in their analysis: that Kaepernick is making this shift because he’s now a free agent looking for a team and is “selling out.” Some phrased their argument like this column from Ebenezer Samuel of the New York Daily News, a piece that’s written like an 800-word Trump tweet, headlined, “Colin Kaepernick a hypocrite as he ends national anthem protest now that he needs a new job.”
Even more measured, mainstream voices like Mike Florio of ProFootballTalkeffectively had the same analysis, writing, “It’s hard not to be cynical and believe that Kaepernick is heading into free agency wanting to maximize his value and doesn’t want teams planning to bid on his services to view him as a distraction.”
And we will not even wade through the swamp of social-media comments from racists, trolls, and anonymous swamp-dwellers trashing Kaepernick for “being a sellout.” It’s shameless: the same people trashing him for not kneeling are the same voices and trolls—from the respectable to the deplorable—who trashed him for taking a knee in the first place. This is an echo of last August when many of the talking heads braying for Kaepernick to shut up and stand were just two months earlier praising Muhammad Ali upon his death. It is as if cognitive dissonance is their drug of choice, and their addiction is public, proud, and shameless.
The idea that Colin Kaepernick is “selling out” is absurd. He is continuing his Know Your Rights campaign, aimed at educating urban youth about their options when confronted by the police—a campaign that has taken on a new urgency in the age of ICE staking out churches and courthouses—and his public, transparent, six-figure donations to social-justice organizations, which will be ongoing well. This is someone who donated $50,000 in January for a health clinic at Standing Rock to aid those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline and held a function at the historic Audubon Ballroom—without media—to speak and hold workshops for high schoolers about the legacy of Malcolm X. Those kinds of actions are not going anywhere. Journalist Shaun King zeroed in out the most telling point of all, writing, “I don’t see or hear any activists criticizing Colin Kaepernick—just talking heads. I don’t see anyone who actually puts their life on the line to stand up against injustice criticizing him. That’s not an accident. Anyone who leads protests knows full well that in order to be effective, you change your methods. You tinker with your approach. You don’t march every single day. You march, then you boycott, then you build programs, then you do a sit in, then you host meetings. You mix it up. If you march every day, people tune you out and your actions become white noise. Every activist I know understands this. Colin understands this because he has the heart and soul of an activist.”
I would add as well that none of the football players who were inspired by Kaepernick to take a knee or raise a fist have been critical of him. In fact, they have been defending him. His former 49ers teammate Torrey Smith has been taking on social-media trolls and tweeted, “Kap takes a knee….Folks lose their mind….Kap says he is standing….Folks still lose their mind. Kap is a legend for that protest though…he pushed race and social issues to the front and inspired more folks to say and do something.”
Colin Kaepernick isn’t stopping. We should not stop either. February—with very little media attention—was a record month for the number of people killed by police in the United States. Jeff Sessions has signaled that his Department of Justice would be whistling “Dixie” instead of monitoring these killings. As long as there is a gap between what they tell us the flag represents and the lived experiences of people’s lives, we need to stay active. We can also be secure that Colin Kaepernick will be by our side.
Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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