When in the summer of 2016 San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem during a pre-season National Football League game, he stopped being the quarterback who had led his team to two Super Bowls. He became instead who he is today—pro football’s best-known political figure.
In refusing to stand for an anthem that in his words symbolizes “a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick, who is biracial, immediately linked himself to the black athletes who over the years have fought for racial justice.
But Kaepernick also linked himself to the broader, historic civil rights movement. When in 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, he spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as a way of showing that the country was not living up to the egalitarian values epitomized by Lincoln. Kaepernick has employed a similar strategy with respect to the national anthem. Rather than disrespecting it, as his critics have charged, Kaepernick has used his kneeling to symbolize the gap between the country’s racial practices and the values the national anthem speaks to with its emphasis on America as the “land of the free.”
The model for today’s politically engaged athlete was set by Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 began the desegregation of Major League baseball when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers as a first baseman. Twenty year later Muhammad Ali became as controversial as Robinson had been when, at the height of the Vietnam War, he refused induction into the Army. “They never called me nigger,” Ali famously remarked of the North Vietnamese.
The following year, during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos elevated their racial protest to the international level when they gave the Black Power salute as they accepted medals for finishing first and third in the 200-meter sprint.
Kaepernick was prepared for the criticism his refusal to stand would draw. “I am not looking for approval,” he told the media. “If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
What Kaepernick could not know in advance was how his teammates and players around the National Football League would take his refusal to stand, which he soon changed from the passive gesture of sitting on his team’s bench to the more active and respectful gesture of kneeling.
Kaepernick’s teammate, 49ers safety Eric Reid, was the first to join him in kneeling during the national anthem, at the beginning of the 2016 season. Players from the Seattle Seahawks joined the protest soon after. But it wasn’t until this season, with Donald Trump in office, that the protest really took off, with players from the Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, and New England Patriots among those to take part. Today, kneeling during the playing of the national anthem is commonplace throughout the NFL.
Moreover, other athletes have followed the NFL players’ example. Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. women’s Olympic soccer team has taken a knee during the playing of the national anthem; so have high-school football teams across the country, as well as Howard University’s cheerleaders.
The NFL has responded by cutting Kaepernick out. When he opted out of his contract with the 49ers, who were about to cut him from their roster, Kaepernick had been demoted to backup. Since then no team has offered to sign him, despite a 2016 season in which he held his own playing for a terrible 49ers team and a lifetime pro-football record of 12,271 passing yards and 72 touchdowns.
Had he been in the National Basketball Association, Kaepernick could have counted on a warmer reception. NBA players, led by some of the league’s biggest stars, have made a point of speaking out on racial issues.
In 2012 LeBron James and his Miami Heat teammates posted a picture of themselves wearing hoodies to symbolize their support for Trayvon Martin, the black Florida teenager shot by a neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who thought Martin’s hoodie made him look “real suspicious.”
In 2014 protest spread more widely across the NBA when players around the league wore “I can’t breathe” T-shirts in memory of Eric Garner, the black New Yorker who died after the police put him in a chokehold when they arrested him for selling loose cigarettes.
Even though 70 percent of NFL players are black, the NFL is different politically from the NBA. NFL players are more vulnerable to the dictates of team owners. Contracts in the National Football League are not fully guaranteed. A player who is cut by his team before his long-term contract is up will often end up with far less money than he originally signed for. Business Insider puts the amount of money Kaepernick received after signing a lucrative contract in 2014 as just 31 percent of what he would have gotten if all the provisions in his contract had been guaranteed.
Kaepernick had only one advantage in dealing with the NFL in 2016. The NFL has built up enormous distrust among its players and the public, first for minimizing the dangers of concussions, then for dragging its feet on distributing the money it agreed to pay in a concussion settlement with the players. Of the 1,400 concussion claims filed so far, many from players suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), just 140 have been approved by the NFL.
Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem has gained enough support from the players to repeatedly draw the ire of President Trump. The president got widespread blowback when he said in a speech that he would like to see NFL owners say of any player who knelt during the national anthem, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.”
What Kaepernick does next is the question. Jackie Robinson could feel vindicated when Major League team after Major League team signed black players, but Kaepernick’s racial protest is not tied to any single piece of civil rights legislation, let alone specific action by the NFL. For the moment, his long-term success rests on how much easier he has made it for professional football players and other athletes to become political activists.
When Bob McNair, the owner of the NFL’s Houston Texans, referred to the power the players were exercising in the kneeling controversy as the equivalent of “the inmates running the prison,” ten players on his own team briefly walked out of practice. McNair was forced to apologize for his remarks, but it didn’t stop forty members of the team from kneeling during the anthem at their game against the Seattle Seahawks that Sunday.
Meanwhile, Kaepernick remains shut out of pro football for kicking off this wave of protest. He has filed a collusion grievance against the National League, charging team owners with keeping him out of the league for kneeling during the national anthem, but in a sport in which so much player evaluation depends on intangibles, Kaepernick faces an uphill battle. He may have to content himself with the fact that other players are not being cut from NFL rosters for following his lead.
In November, President Trump again took to Twitter to reminded the country of Kaepernick’s influence. “The Commissioner has lost control of the hemorrhaging league. Players are the boss,” the president tweeted on Thanksgiving Friday. Trump wasn’t alone in recognizing Kaepernick’s influence. Two weeks after his attack on Kaepernick, Time made Kaepernick a finalist for Person of the Year, ranking him right behind Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Robert Mueller, and Kim Jong Un on the list of runners-up.
As for the NFL, it continues to hope it can find a way to get the players to stop kneeling during the national anthem. In late November, the league reached a tentative deal that would see it donate as much as $100 million to racial-justice groups. That’s serious money, but many of the players see the offer as nothing more than an effort to buy off their protests. They’ve made it clear that they don’t plan to stop any time soon.
Nicolaus Mills chairs the literature department at Sarah Lawrence College. He is author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.