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Kaepernick, 4 years later

| Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

From “keep politics out of sports” to “shut up and dribble,” many Americans refuse to listen to the voice of outspoken athletes and reject the notion that sports have always been tightly woven with political issues. From today’s perspective, some people only see an intersection of history and sports. However, much of history is the politics of the past, and politics and sports have always been undeniably intertwined.

Almost four years ago today, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers took a knee during the national anthem. Colin Kaepernick quickly became a voice for the movement against police brutality and injustice toward the African-American community.  As a result of his actions, he became the most disliked player in the entire National Football League. After the 2016 NFL season, Kaepernick would never make his way back into the NFL, despite his 58-game career resume including almost 15,000 total yards, 85 total touchdowns to only 30 interceptions, two trips to the NFC Championship and a Superbowl appearance. This led to a series of accusations against the NFL for colluding to keep Kaepernick out of the league in response to his protests during the national anthem.

The issue became polarizing and political, with many simply refusing to hear Kaepernick’s message at all. Many believed he was unqualified to have a voice, that his cause wasn’t that big of a deal, that he was unpatriotic or somehow disrespecting veterans and the national anthem was not the “right way to protest.” Kaepernick was clear: “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.”

Was kneeling during the anthem ever showing disrespect toward military veterans? As recently as June of this year, Saints quarterback Drew Brees thought so. When discussing kneeling for the national anthem to protest police brutality Brees said, “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country … I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together.” While I believe Drew Brees to be a good man, this comment was tone-deaf in its timing, in the immediate wake of the killing of George Floyd by an officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

Additionally, Brees’ comment misrepresents what the protests were about. From the outset, Kaepernick took on advice to kneel rather than sit during the anthem, after having a conversation with Nate Boyer, a former member of the U.S. Army Special Forces. They exchanged perspectives, came to an understanding and both were receptive. When asked specifically about the military, Kaepernick said, “I think it’s a misunderstanding. The media painted this as I’m anti-American, anti-men and women of the military, and that’s not the case at all. I realize that men and women of the military go out and sacrifice their lives and put their selves in harm’s way for my freedom of speech and my freedoms in this country, and my freedom to take a seat or take a knee, so I have the utmost respect for them and I think what I did was taken out of context and spun a different way.” His message, his protest and his movement were ignored and he was continuously criticized and mischaracterized, including by the president of the United States. At a rally, Trump had this to say about the peaceful protest: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when someone disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a b-tch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired.”

Elijah McClain. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Rayshard Brooks. Countless others. This problem of police killings of African Americans is not new, but in 2020 it has reached a flashpoint as horrific stories and videos of blatant injustice have surfaced and circulated. It has come to such a point that people can no longer ignore the existence of this problem and people have found their voice in protests nationally. The sports world, as well as the mainstream, are finally starting to see Colin Kaepernick for what he was — a heroic sports figure who was ahead of his time.

He is a person who sacrificed his achievement of the “American Dream” as an NFL quarterback to give a voice to a movement, at a time when people refused to listen. Many people still needed to realize that injustice against communities of color needs to be urgently addressed. Before many were ready to accept his message, Kaepernick sacrificed his multi-million dollar NFL career to put the spotlight on the dangerous racial bias and injustice in the U.S., specifically when this racial mistreatment is behind a badge. Years before the Black Lives Matter movement would catch on as it has, before NBA, WNBA and NHL player-led initiatives would result in playoff strikes, and before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would go so far as to say, “I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to,” Kaepernick was using his professional sports platform to speak up for what he felt was right, no matter the cost. The issue has become so widely discussed that it cannot be ignored, meaning figures like NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell can no longer stand against people like Kaepernick. Those who sit in a position of power, who do not prioritize social justice advocacy, will no longer get off the hook, thanks to a recent groundswell of public support for the cause of Black Lives Matter.

Colin Kaepernick’s method of protest through kneeling is still criticized by some, but his message and his legacy are being seen in a much more acceptable and positive light. Polls say his support has risen from 28% to 52% since he first began his peaceful protest.

Kaepernick’s activism has the potential to be immortalized among the likes of other great athletes cemented in history and their impacts, such as John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, who were all hated among the mainstream before people eventually understood their importance. We are seeing this dynamic unfold with Kaepernick in real-time, and he will likely go down in sports and American history as an extremely influential and important figure. From his organization focused on fighting oppression through social activism and education, philanthropic donations and the attention he brought to a very real and still extremely relevant issue of police brutality against communities of color, Kaepernick’s impact lives on, despite being denied an NFL opportunity in the four years since he took a knee to take a stand against injustice.

Another former 49ers player, defensive tackle Ian Williams, was a student-athlete here at the University of Notre Dame. In a recent article, he recounted his Notre Dame experience: “Notre Dame’s a great university. It is predominantly white. It’s Catholic, and there are people who love me on game day, on Saturday, but they hate me Monday through Friday and on Sunday.” These comments came out just a couple months before insensitive and harmful comments emerged under a Notre Dame Football post supporting a player advocating the cause of Black Lives Matter. This caused current Notre Dame student-athlete Shaun Crawford to tweet, “I’ve seen it all smh … the comments don’t reflect this university but they do reflect why we are speaking up for love, peace, and equality! Keep pushing the standard.”

If Notre Dame students are to be the leaders of tomorrow, treating people the right way needs to start here and caring about issues that affect your peers needs to start now. “So we all studied the Civil Rights movement. We all studied slavery. We’ve all sat there and thought about what we would do if we lived in that time. Well, we’re doing that right now. Whatever you’d be doing then, we’re doing now,” shared Williams. Notre Dame students should open their hearts and minds to not only see Kaepernick for what he was, but much more importantly, to see what he was advocating for. It is a movement against systemic prejudice and violent injustice at the hands of the same law enforcement that is supposed to protect all Americans. This is not the time to be silent or indifferent. This is an issue that affects your peers from different backgrounds, peers that deserve our support in combating systems that treat them unfavorably.

Improving the country and calling out injustice should never be considered unpatriotic; it is the most patriotic action a person can do. “Once again, I’m not anti-American,” Kaepernick said, “I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.”


Justice Mory is majoring in Business Analytics and is part of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy. He is from Southern California and now lives in Duncan Hall. His main goal is to keep learning and to continue to become more informed. He can be reached at [email protected] or @JmoryND on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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