When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee last year during the playing of the National Anthem before NFL games to protest police brutality and racial injustice, the whole world began paying attention. When news broke that Kaepernick, should he re-sign with the 49ers or sign on with another team, will no longer kneel before games, “the cynics lined up quickly,” the San Francisco Chronicle’s Al Saracevic recently reported. Regardless of whether or not Kaepernick chooses to kneel, the protests he initiated have had a major impact on our nation.
The “distraction” issue, as some of his critics charged, was put to rest this past season, when his 49er teammates voted Kaepernick the prestigious Len Eshmont Award for inspiration and courage. According to the team’s website, the Eshmont Award, is given to the teammate who “best exemplifies the inspirational and courageous play of Len Eshmont, an original member of the 1946 49ers team.”
No matter what Kaepernick decides to do — re-sign with the 49ers, sign on with another team, or hang up his cleats — the protests definitely sparked a much-needed national conversation. And if he doesn’t play another down in his life, Kaepernick has made a significant contribution helping to re-light the fire of activism among athletes; a fire started decades ago by Paul Robeson, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Mahmoud Abdul Raouf, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and many others.
Regardless of his future path, Kaepernick has already put his money where his ideals are, contributing $1 million to community organizations combatting racism and economic injustice, and convening a daylong Bay Area workshop called “I Know My Rights Camp” that taught young people their civil and human rights.
There will undoubtedly be a chorus of nattering nabobs of negativity (hat tip to Richard Nixon’s disgraced Vice President, the late Spiro Agnew) claiming that Kaepernick is a hypocrite, and is only dropping his protest because he’s out to get another NFL paycheck. The New York Daily News’ Shaun King reported that “Almost immediately, a firestorm began — primarily among sportswriters — calling him a sellout, a fraud, a phony, an opportunist, and scores of other grossly inappropriate names.”
King noted that Kaepernick’s “family and personal relationships are under a microscope. I haven’t seen him in a single commercial or ad since he took a knee. This wasn’t opportunism — this was quite the opposite. This was a man putting his entire career and reputation on the line to stand up against racial injustice in America.”
Kaepernick’s awakening is a fascinating personal story of political growth and maturity, compassion and commitment. He withstood death threats, hostile questions from the press, a Twitter-sphere gone bonkers, angry game-day fans pitching frenetic hissy fits, and he stood up and unapologetically and unambiguously answered questions from reporters in every city the 49ers played in last season. When he wore tee shirts emblazoned with the likenesses of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Fidel Castro, it sparked noteworthy exchanges with the press.
As Shaun King pointed out, “The notion that Colin Kaepernick somehow sold out after sustaining a protest for 20-plus weeks is preposterous. He risked his life and his career in doing so for just a few games. That he kept at it for months and inspired dozens of other athletes to follow his lead was groundbreaking.”