Pop Culture Race

Taking a Knee with Colin Kaepernick

It has been over a year since Colin Kaepernick first decided to sit down for the national anthem before a game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Houston Texans to protest the ongoing incidents of police brutality against African-Americans. He finally broke headlines after going unnoticed for weeks, when a reporter asked him about the incident after the 49ers’ third preseason game.

When asked about why he chose to remain sitting for the anthem, Kaepernick said, “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.”

Since then, the quarterback has simultaneously drawn support from celebrities and fellow athletes for his actions and become an electric rod for scrutiny in the media for his refusal to stand in reverence of the flag. His critics say he should have kept political issues out of sports, as it sullies the spirit of the game. For many, watching sports is an escape from the complications of everyday life, and his protest is an intrusion into their weekly sanctuary. Others who disapprove argue that he is disrespecting our nation and the soldiers fighting abroad, and his message has admittedly been inconsistent at times. During a training session with the 49ers, Kaepernick showed up with socks portraying pigs in police uniforms, generalizing and insulting officers risking their lives to protect the community. His ill-advised outfit distracted people further away from his primary issue, backfiring and drawing criticism for his offensive depictions of law enforcement officials. In November, Kaepernick dug himself even further into a hole when he declared that he declined to vote in the 2016 Presidential election. For someone who had been so outspoken against civil rights violations in recent months, why would he refuse to exercise his power and responsibility as a citizen to vote? The criticism came long, and it came hard.

Fast forward to now, and the discourse has shifted completely. At a rally in Huntsville, Alabama just over a month ago, President Trump riled up the public when he called for teams to kick any “son of a b-tch off the field” who was taking the knee during the anthem. Immediately, the entire sports world banded together in solidarity of those players who had taken up Kaepernick’s cause.

Current and former players in the NFL took to Twitter to support their teammates and denounce the president’s comments. That same weekend, players, coaches, and owners from the Ravens and Jaguars organizations, among others, showed their response by symbolically locking arms together in a show of unity. Outside of the NFL, rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell of the Oakland Athletics became the first Major League Baseball player to take a knee during the national anthem after criticizing Trump on social media. Trump’s divisive words even provoked responses from those who had previously been quiet about Kaepernick’s cause. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell spoke out against Trump’s remarks and called for unity in the league. Kaepernick once again became the focus of attention.

It is difficult for athletes to balance their personal and professional lives, with every action and word subject to intense scrutiny under the public eye. They are expected to act as role models and avoid controversy to protect their image, and this is what makes their protests so powerful. They are risking their own careers and reputation to use their influence to bring attention to problems in our society that most would prefer to ignore.

Athletes such as Muhammad Ali and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf of the NBA will go down in the history books as key advocates of civil rights in America, and like many before him, Colin Kaepernick is using his publicity as an athlete to bring attention to racial tensions in the nation. Bill Russell, in particular, was a player in the NBA whose career took place from 1956 to 1969 during the last years of the Jim Crow era. Widely celebrated as one of the most influential athletes in American history, Russell was actively involved in the civil rights movement and even showed up to the 1963 March on Washington to advocate for African-American participation in the economy. Interestingly though, Russell deliberately chose to stand in respect of the national anthem while he played in the NBA. Of course, sentiments about race were different back then, but it is fascinating to think about how these two individuals came to make their decision to acknowledge the flag.

Nowadays, Colin Kaepernick is a free agent in the league, which essentially means that he is unemployed, and has been a free agent since he opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers early in the year. Not a single team in the NFL is willing to offer the quarterback a contract to join their organization. Some believe that teams are worried about bringing such a controversial figure into their organization, while others point to his on-and-off performance on the field as the cause of his difficulties.

In his own interpretation of events, Kaepernick recently filed a lawsuit against all of the team owners in the NFL claiming collusion to prevent him from securing a job in the league as a quarterback. Whether or not team owners really did conspire against him, his future in the league is uncertain, at best, and it is entirely possible that Kaepernick may never play another game in the NFL as a consequence of his actions. But if giving up his professional football career to progress African-American interests against police brutality and racial inequality is the legacy that he leaves behind, future generations of Americans will be grateful for the quarterback’s sacrifice. Social reform requires challenging our set beliefs, and consistent efforts must be made to try and aid the burdens of the historically marginalized. In the months leading up to Kaepernick’s protest, incidents of police brutality ticked higher and higher, and tensions between law enforcement officials and afflicted communities reached a breaking point when riots all over the nation tore entire neighborhoods apart. Protesting citizens ransacked city blocks, acting out in frustration over the current state of race relations in America, and distrust of police officers continued to mount. In this time of confusion and unrest, Colin Kaepernick delegated himself as a focal point for citizens from both sides to express their dialogue and was able to refocus our attention on confronting the ugly prejudice that has marred our nation’s history.