“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” – Zora Neale Hurston
Back in August 2016, when Colin Kaepernick started sitting during the national anthem before NFL pre-season games nobody noticed because at the time he was the backup and cameras rarely look for backups even when the backup had taken that same team to the Superbowl three seasons earlier, is one of the most recognizable faces in the game, is still in his prime, and is still able to play. It was only on game three of the pre-season, game in which Colin was going to start, that the media, and subsequently all of us, found out about what he was doing. After the game, since he was the starting QB again, cameras and microphone found their way to him in the locker room and, for the very first time, he explained, in no uncertain terms, why he had decided to sit during the anthem. He did not leave any room for misinterpretation, either. The message was clear. Crystal clear. At least for anyone who really cared to listen to it. His words: “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.” That day, and every time he was subsequently asked about his stand, he gave facts backed up by real-life experiences and data. He had done his homework and it showed. It did not matter to everyone, though. It quickly became clear that many had immediately closed their ears because of the gesture and justified their anger by bringing the military into the equation when it had never, I repeat never, been about the military. Still, the media and those who just wanted to be mad made it about the military. Colin, along with his teammate Eric Reid, after a conversation with Nate Boyer, an army veteran, and former Seattle Seahawks player, in an effort to bring the conversation back where it belonged – away from the “disrespecting the military” narrative – went from sitting to kneeling. Case settled? Not by a long shot.
The first indication that things were not going to go well was that the media immediately dubbed it an “anthem protest”, which implied that whoever participated would be showing disrespect toward the anthem and by association the country and everything else that goes with it, in particular the military. As a side note, the American anthem, like other anthems around the world, is problematic and maybe it should be protested but this is a story for another day. Back to that protest. The lazy argument would be to say that they called it an “anthem protest” to keep it simple, short and sweet when reporting it, especially online. I get it, in a way. We are in an age of short attention span and click-baiting. Still, it is lazy. This was never an anthem protest it was a protest against police brutality and systemic oppression of black people and people of color. Too long and too complicated for our little brains to digest, understand and remember? I think not.
One of the biggest criticisms that surfaced was that as a wealthy millionaire QB in the NFL, Colin Kaepernick had nothing to complain about and so he should just shut up, get his check and throw the ball or run. The football version of “shut up and dribble”, if you will. Colin, a biracial young man, raised by adoptive parents who are white, is still a Black man. A proud one at that. He may not have been brought up in a tough environment where overt racism was constantly in his face and violence on his doorstep but he knows people who did and still do, he knows the names we have all heard about such as Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Charleena Lyles, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner and Aiyana Stanley-Jones. He knows their names, he cares and that alone should give him license to speak up. And just because he has never been a victim of police brutality or oppression himself, does that mean that he has never been subjected to racial discrimination or that he has never been racially profiled? What say you? As a Black quarterback in the NFL, the coverage he has received since the beginning of his career has been on par with that of Black QBs from his generation and previous ones. Not to give a sports history lesson but it is important to recognize that, historically, blacks were believed to lack the leadership skills and most importantly the smarts to play the quarterback position, and even those beliefs have largely evolved, their legacy can be found and seen in the way Black QBs are treated as they make the transition from high-school to college, college to pro and through their pro career. Countless of them have had to give up the sports they loved, switch positions, play in the Canadian league and/or were kept on a very short leash when given a chance. The way they are described speaks volumes, too. They are defined as athletes first, no matter how successful they are in other areas of the role. Their athleticism, which should be viewed as an added tool in their arsenal is used to minimize the other intangible skills lauded in other QBs, thus devaluing them. Just listen to how Louisville QB Lamar Jackson is being covered as he goes through the draft process.
Black athletes are Black people. Women, men and children who will always be seen as Black first. Thinking about race issues, talking about them and raising awareness is not politics, it is life. Making money, even at the level that some of the wealthiest among them have been able to make, doesn’t make a Black man less of a Black man, even if he tries his hardest. Black athletes are expected to be grateful for the money they make as though, unlike their white counterparts, they have not earned it, worked for it and did not deserve it. That sounds about white.
To be clear, even if Colin never gets another opportunity to play in the NFL again he will be fine because he found his calling and he is living it every single day in these streets. He talked the talk and he is consistently and constantly walking the walk. Lives have been forever changed for the better because he took a knee. The conversation has expanded because he took a knee. More people care because he took a knee. Young Brown and Black boys and girls have more hope because he took a knee. He is fine and will be fine. But why should he have to choose when nobody else has been asked to? To be clear, nobody should have to choose. Virtually every single player in the NFL does work in the community, either in association with the league and/or with their own organization. They raise awareness and funds for issues ranging from health conditions to poverty, organize activities for the youths, help (re)build houses, spend time with sick children and their families, and so much more, and they have never been asked to choose between that work and their career. On the contrary, they are encouraged to get involved and to better the community they belong to. So, what’s the difference? One thing that is often raised against Colin’s protest is that it occurred while he was on his employer’s time and dime, and that football games are not the place nor the time to draw attention to these issues. Really? The month of October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and the NFL goes all out to participate and, throughout the month, cancer survivors are acknowledged, players are encouraged to wear pink gear during games, the stands are filled with fans in pink, the televised games provide a huge platform for this. The month of November is dedicated to the military through Salute to Service, which allows teams and fans to show their appreciation to the military by wearing camouflage NFL gear and participating in the pre-game festivities in which servicemen and women are honored. So, again, what’s the difference?
The difference is that the issues Colin and others have been talking about and working tirelessly to help find solutions to are not universally accepted as important and worthy. And they make many uncomfortable. I challenge you to find one person who is going to tell you to stop talking about cancer and the need to find cures. Issues that have anything to do with race, on the other hand, are seen very differently. Those who face them, understand them, work to end them, talk about them because they know that unaddressed and unacknowledged issues can never be resolved. Those who don’t face them, don’t understand them and maybe benefit from them don’t want to talk about them and tell the former to stop whining, to get over it, to simply shut up. The pushback is very similar to and very reminiscent of that received by #BlackLivesMatter activists and other Brown and Black folks protesting for the right not to be killed by police. They have been called “thugs” from Ferguson to Baltimore, the movement has been categorized as a “terrorist group” while the teenagers who survived the shooting in their high-school in Parkland, Florida, and who have been courageously speaking up and demonstrating against gun violence and for the need for gun reforms, with the support of their parents, are being held as heroes, as they should. They are heroes in their own right and their campaign, although still very young, has already garnered support from very influential people and organizations, and has the powerful NRA and its supporters shaking in their collective boots. Yes, some people have had some nasty things to say about them and what they are doing but overwhelmingly people are behind them and are opening their wallet to support them. The media is covering their every move and every word, helping further the agenda in the process, and we are grateful for it. Black and Brown activists who have been in the streets for decades spearheading movements for change in essential areas of society, putting their lives at risk, eating, sleeping and breathing these causes are left watching from the sidelines as their ideas and tactics are being co-opted, whitewashed and used to fight battles that are deemed more important and worthy.
The NFL announced this season that it would be allocating $89 million (over the next 7 years) to support players in their social justice effort and just recently launched a campaign called Let’s Listen Together, which has been pushed really hard online and on TV with active players like Josh McCown, Devin McCourty, and Malcolm Jenkins talking about it on the NFL Network and other channels. This came as a result of months of negotiation between the league and the players once the protests had reached a level that could no longer be ignored. It looked to me more like an effort by the league to get the protests to stop without having to openly and publicly force players to stop, but it is still a step in the right direction considering that players who were already involved in these causes have now more funds at their disposal to make things happen. However, and this is the biggest problem, in my opinion, Colin Kaepernick has been totally excluded from the narrative as he had been excluded from the negotiations and from that Sports Illustrated cover on activism in sports (A Nation Divided: Sports United – October 2, 2017). When the Players Coalition met with league executives, Colin was not invited, and it is only after some players, mainly Eric Reid, Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, who did not like the direction the whole thing was taking, spoke up and publicly called out both parties for not inviting Colin that they extended an invitation to him. He declined. Too little too late. The players who have spoken up went a step further and actually distanced themselves from the coalition. One of the things they were not willing to compromise about was addressing Colin Kaepernick’s employment situation before any further negotiation could occur. The meetings ended, the pledge was made by the league, the new campaign has now been launched and the league has successfully put its stamp on every page of the story as though Colin had never taken a knee and lost his job.
Long before I was born Muhammad Ali refused to go fight in Vietnam and lost almost everything in the process. I have missed other pivotal moments in which sports and social issues intersected on a stage so big that the world had to take notice and, for many like me, the day Colin Kaepernick took a knee was such a moment. We had not necessarily realized it but we had longed for a sports figure to step outside of the field or the court and use is his/her platform to highlight issues that concerned all of us but divided us just as much. Colin might not have had Muhammad Ali’s stature, success, and notoriety at that point of his career but he was a star in his own right and a polarizing figure as well. Up to that point, however, the debate had been about the type of player he was. Was he a complete QB or a QB who could do it with his legs but not with his arms? Was he a real leader or was he still too immature? Could he ever return to his Superbowl form? Did he make it too much about himself by kissing his tatted-up bicep every time he scored a touchdown with his legs (aka kaepernicking)? There was a lot of noise about him and he even lost his position as a starter on his team but the noise was about the player between the lines. With that simple gesture of sitting on the bench, he made people look at the man outside the lines. They questioned his motives, his understanding of the issues he was talking about, his commitment to the game… And just like that, this young biracial young man, who had been raised by a middle-class white adoptive family and made it to the NFL, became the biggest fear of many in the white world. A conscious and aware Black man with an afro, unafraid to risk it all to disrupt the status quo and use his platform to remind the world that Black Lives Matter.
When you look at Colin Kaepernick these days, you see a man who has stepped into his purpose and who is living it every single day. You see a man who is answering any and every criticism his detractors keep leveling at him with his actions. You also see a man who put his passion, his career and his livelihood on the line to speak up on behalf of those who cannot do it and those who don’t have the platform that he has.
The NFL often complains about the lack of attention given to players who do good things off-the-field versus those who get in trouble with the law for instance, and they have a point, but they are keeping Colin Kaepernick away for being that guy who does good things off-the-field. In 2017 alone, he was recognized as one of GQ’s Citizen of the Year and received the prestigious Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award and the Easton Monroe Courageous Advocate Award from the ACLU. His Know Your Rights Camp allows youth to learn about their rights, their worth, their history and so much more. The million dollar pledge (100K a month for 10 months) he made in 2016 is complete: the first 900K went to 31 different grassroots organizations involved in social justice. The last 100K’s distribution started as a challenge in which a celebrity would donate $10,000 to an organization of their choice and Colin would match it and it was so successful that even after the one-million mark was reached, they kept the challenge and donations going. Talk about putting your money where your mouth is and paying it forward.
One day, just like Muhammad Ali before him, the story of Colin Kaepernick will be told in a very different way than it has been so far because the heat will cool down, water will run under the bridge, perspectives will change, time will heal wounds and because that is how it works. History gets rewritten on a daily basis and the villains of yesterday become the heroes of tomorrow. Muhammad Ali was not a villain to all when he first spoke up and made his feelings none but he was no universal hero either and many have changed their tunes about him as years went on and as he lost the ability to be the strong and powerful voice he once was and that many feared. Some of the people who heavily criticized Colin when he first started are now calling for him to get another chance in the league and are applauding his actions,mostly because they have realized that the consequences he has faced are beyond unjust, especially considering that he hasn’t committed any crime nor violated any law or policy, and because Colin has followed through on everything he had said and promised to do, and gone much further than anyone could have predicted. His movement that some called a fad has proven to stand the test of time, has garnered a lot more support than initially expected, has awakened minds and hearts and has forced difficult conversations in various arenas. One day, people who burned their San Francisco 49ers #7 jerseys and/or boycotted the NFL in protest of the protest, will tell their children and grandchildren that they were part of history and witnessed the making of a great man and great movement. Not all of them will, but enough of them for Colin’s legacy to have a much different flavor than it currently has.
As a lover of the game, I was there to cheer on Colin when he was that guy and took his team to the Superbowl in New Orleans – the night Beyoncé took all the power and ran with it – and as a human being, more specifically a Black woman, I am and will be here to cheer on Colin as an activist on the ground right now and as whatever else he decides to do and be later on. As the 2016 regular season was drawing to a close he opted out of his contract with the 49ers and became a free agent not knowing where he would land next. You can say his future became uncertain at that moment but we all know it had become so the second he took a knee and voiced his reasons for doing it. He still had the talent and could still be the man, as that Beats by Dre commercial he shot a few years ago reminds us, he was making money from his team and his endorsements. He did not have to care about anybody but himself and his loved ones but he did. He could have continued to benefit from the status quo but he chose not to. He did not have to do a damn thing but he did THE damn thing. He lost his job for having our back. Time for us to have his.
“It’s priceless to know that I can go to sleep knowing that I stood to my principles. Whether I go broke, whether they take my life, whatever it is, I stood on principles. To me, that is worth more than wealth and fame.” These words could have just as easily been uttered by Colin Kaepernick but they are from Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (in a conversation with Jesse Washington for The Undefeated), a man who knows way too well what Colin is going through. Despite his impressive skills as a basketball player in the NBA in the 90’s Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf is mostly remembered now for having Tourette syndrome, converting to Islam, abandoning his given name of Chris Jackson and refusing to stand for the national anthem pre-game ceremony (he later reached a compromise with the league and was allowed to pray while standing during the anthem), which cost him thousands in fines, millions in potential future revenue and opportunities, and ultimately, his career in the NBA.
In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick made a decision and started a protest that turned into a movement. He put his face and name on all of it it. The people who have denied him a job in the NFL ever since cannot say the same. It is now March 2018, the NFL season is over, teams are already hard at work on the next one, a new Champion has been crowned, a new class of hopefuls is getting ready for the draft and Colin Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job, and that is a real shame.