5 Years After Colin Kaepernick Refused to Stand, We Still Get the Story Wrong

It has now been five years since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided not to stand for the national anthem. It was before a little-noticed pre-season game. Kaepernick wasn’t even starting. He took his seat behind the bench to cause as little uproar as possible. The act might have gone unnoticed if not for intrepid reporter Steve Wyche, who saw what was happening and understood its significance.

The gesture was a reaction to the rash of police killings that had taken place over that summer, including those of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Kaepernick sat in disgust over the gap between what this country’s anthem promises and the lived realities of Black people in the United States. No one could have predicted the firestorm that would follow. Countless people around the world were inspired. Others sent death threats. The right-wing backlash culminated with the president of the United States, with his racist instincts on high alert, treating Kaepernick as a his own personal punching bag. And it didn’t stop there. There was the “blackballing” from the NFL, the Nike ad, the burning of Nike products, the efforts by the NFL to co-opt Kaepernick’s message while denying him work, the much-discussed juxtaposition of Colin taking that knee and Derek Chauvin taking a knee to murder George Floyd… it’s been a lot.

But I want to argue that the media’s focus on Kaepernick misses what his legacy actually is. What Colin Kaepernick has provided over the past five years has been a language and method of resistance for young athletes to follow. Literally thousands of athletes in small towns and big cities across the country put his example into practice in their own communities. All of a sudden, the playing field was a contested political space: a site not of escape but protest. The anthem became an opportunity to express dissent. The idea of being—in that overused phrase—an “activist athlete” became the new reality for countless teenagers.

Young people have often been painted as apathetic. Young athletes are often seen in the culture as not only apathetic but downright reactionary. For most athletes, play was an end in and of itself. Yet, after Kaepernick took his knee, many of these same athletes were transformed. Yes, other athletes had protested on the field. We saw it in the WNBA over that same summer of 2016. But the combination of the media power of the NFL and the use of the anthem as a space for protest was a game changer. These young athletes began to understand their own cultural capital in their communities and were willing to exercise it in order to start uncomfortable conversations about racism and police violence.

I have a book about to drop called The Kaepernick Effect, in which I interview dozens upon dozens of these youth athletes. What I found is that they didn’t take a knee during the anthem to support or mimic Kaepernick and his efforts to get back into the league. They didn’t do it to follow a trend. If anything, as high school students, they were putting themselves out there to be bullied, mocked, and even threatened with losing their spot on the team, not to mention violence. But still they took that knee. They did it because they, like so many other young people across this country, are fed up with white supremacy and police violence. You cannot understand why 2020’s police murder of Floyd caused some of the largest protests in the history of the United States without understanding the righteous impatience of these young people. You can’t understand why 2021 has seen this conjoined political backlash against anti-racist teaching and Black people voting without understanding that at its root is a fear of a generation more diverse and less tolerant of intolerance than any other in US history.

If there was a name that was uttered by the people I interviewed, whether they were from Seattle, Wash., or Beaumont, Tex., it wasn’t Colin Kaepernick. It was Trayvon Martin. If you are 19 years old today, then Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman when you were 10. To see his murder and then see Zimmerman get off scot-free was an all-American trauma for an entire generation. In a previous decade, the child whose slaying helped provoke a revolt in the name of Black freedom was Emmett Till. For the young athletes with whom I spoke, it was Trayvon.

The road that was traveled from Kaepernick’s taking that knee to the mass protests of 2020 was in part constructed by these young people. While so much of the sports media has been obsessed with Kaepernick’s every utterance and is waiting for him to speak as if he were some combination of Muhammad Ali and Godot, the fact of the matter is that they’ve gotten the story exactly wrong. It’s not about Kaepernick. Maybe it was never about Kaepernick. It’s about the people who adopted the method and language of his protest, taking it away from the bright lights and cameras and bringing it home. It’s their voices we should be listening to. To ignore them is to ignore the prospect for change in a world ridden with racism, disease, and constant crisis. That’s the true Kaepernick effect: the mass movement to make people uncomfortable enough to surrender their blindness and see what this country has always been and also what it has the capacity to become.

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 dave@edgeofsports.com.
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