Revisiting Kaepernick’s protest in the wake of 2020: athletes make an impact on activist movements

Ava Mac ‘21, Editor-in-Chief

When the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers first took a knee during the national anthem, the world was a different place. It was the late summer of 2016, an election year of high contention and worsening racial relations. Seventy seven black people had been killed at the hands of the police from June to August, and yet the racist rhetoric propagated by Donald Trump’s campaign dominated the media. 

Colin Kaepernick, who was in his sixth season in the NFL at the time, watched with mounting frustration as injustice after injustice happened to people of color. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” the quarterback said at the time. “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.”

What followed after Kaepernick’s protest was nothing short of media outrage. People saw his protest as un-American and disrespectful to those who have served the country. People complained he was “politicizing” sports and bringing his unwarranted political opinion into the game. 

Despite the backlash, Kaepernick continued his protest, and other teammates followed suit. With him fixed as the face of the movement, however, it was Kaepernick who was subsequently shunned by the NFL as a whole, with every team refusing to sign him after he left the 49ers in March of 2017. According to Bleacher Report, an American Football Conference general manager reportedly said that “some teams fear the backlash from fans after getting [Kaepernick],” and some “genuinely hate him and [cannot] stand what he did [kneeling for the national anthem]. They want nothing to do with him.” 

And with that, Kaepernick’s career was taken away from him. But more importantly, his legacy carries on. 

“[Kaepernick] showed me that as athletes, there is something we can do,” Texas wide receiver Kenny Stills said in 2019. “We can use our platform to inform other people what needs to change… to help people who [do not] have a voice be heard.” 

Four years later, athletes across the world and across every sport have begun to take part in the protest. With the Black Lives Matter movement back in full swing following the summer of 2020, Kaepernick’s simple gesture that once angered the masses has become a symbol of the fight for justice and a powerful stand against the oppressor. “Kneeling is both an act of defiance and resistance, but also of reverence, of mourning, [of] honoring lives lost,” Chad Williams, the chair of the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University, said. 

While even today the iconic kneel still has its critics, the attention surrounding the notion has become more of respect, especially as more athletes join the movement—perhaps the most important impact of Kaepernick’s actions. In his sacrifice, he inspired other athletes to do the same, which in turn, influenced the general public to support the movement as well.

According to the Seattle Times, in “a study of political behavior among Black Americans, Kaepernick was ‘a powerful mobilizing force’ who directly inspired nearly one-third of Black people polled to donate to a political cause, attend a protest or boycott the NFL. More than half of respondents said Kaepernick inspired them to vote in a local or national election.” 

Athletes, much like any other figurehead in our society, have the platform and the responsibility to use that platform to bring awareness to important issues. With an average audience of about 15.4 million viewers per NFL game, football players in particular have an immense level of influence in the U.S. They have the means and power to bring issues to the forefront of our media and start a national conversation. In the cause for activism, that ability should not go to waste. 

This is something that goes beyond petty politicization; it is a call to action, a call for justice, a call for equality, in every sense of the word. We have seen how powerful the actions of one person can be in propelling a movement. And we have also seen how much stronger it is when it is being backed by many. Athletes, as role models and figures in society that many children and adults look up to, have a responsibility to be a part of that push, and hopefully, they will continue to be more vocal for the voices that need to be heard and use their platform to make positive and progressive change.

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