He had sat in silence for far too long. Colin Kaepernick, a man fighting for a starting quarterback position out west with the San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand for the national anthem during Friday night’s game against the Green Bay Packers.
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL.com "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."
During a summer of renewed athlete activism, Kaepernick’s protest is the first of its kind in the NFL during this new season. The NFL’s conservative messaging, dedication to patriotism and known blacklisting of players who speak out about political issues makes the black quarterback’s protest complicated.
He did say, however, that he is aware of the controversy; that he knows what he did will not sit well with people, even his employers, the 49ers. Kaepernick also said he did not inform the team or its affiliates of his intentions to protest the national anthem.
"This is not something that I am going to run by anybody," he said. "I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. ... If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right."
This comes in the months and years after a larger lens has been placed on police brutality and racial violence in the United States. Following the deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and many more, black athletes have taken their turn to activism, though most of this has occurred in the ranks of the NBA and WNBA.
Black athletes have even reevaluated how they’ve spoken to their kids about being black in America and interacting with the police during this new wave of activism in America. Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for a flag for a country that oppresses people that look like him shouldn’t come as a surprise.
In 1960, James Timothy "Mudcat" Grant, a former American baseball pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, was singing along with the national anthem and changed the words to "this land ain’t so free I can’t even go to Mississippi," which got him suspended following the dispute. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf famously refused to stand during his NBA career in 1996 because he said the flag was a symbol of oppression. Toni Smith-Thompson, a basketball player at Manhattanville College, turned her back to the flag in 2003 during the playing of the anthem for similar reasons.
Sports are not a construct that can separate itself from other parts of society. It is not an escape. It is a construct that encompasses race. The NFL is a majority black league and the United States disproportionately arrests and kills more black people than anyone else.
Studies this year have found that police officers disproportionately use more force on black bodies than their counterparts. A Washington Post database collecting and investigating police killings has counted that 990 people have been killed by police in 2016.
Being black in America is not a simple task. Pile on the fact that Kaepernick, a black quarterback, might never start again for his franchise after leading them to a Super Bowl. Yet, facing these realities, Kaepernick’s protest continues a march toward equal freedoms for people of color.
His stand is not unique. His passion is not a benchmark. But his protest, whether NFL coaches agree with him or not, sets a different tone in the NFL, that an anthem celebrating a country may not necessarily be inclusive to those who built it from the ground up.
Four years ago, when Kaepernick was gunslinging in the Super Bowl, he was often called a "thug" for his tattoos. Four years later, his protest begs to ask how his profile will be forever changed.
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