Colin Kaepernick is at the Super Bowl.
The most controversial — and talked-about — football player in the world hasn’t taken a snap in two years, and he’s certainly not getting near a gridiron on championship Sunday. It’s extremely unlikely that he agreed to be part of the events leading up to the big game. But if you walk into the NFL’s annual fan festival inside the Georgia World Congress Center, just past the Bud Light-sponsored bar and the maze-like NFL Shop and a virtual reality football video game station sponsored by the U.S. Air Force, his presence is there, tucked inside an educational “activation” called Champions of Change.
The set-up was produced by RISE (the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality), a non-profit founded in 2015 by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. Visitors might take advantage of the Still I Rise Word Cloud Photo Experience, where a filter fills the outline of their face with words like “equality” and “respect” as well as the text of RISE’s pledge to be a Champion of Change. They can also see A Walk in Their Shoes, an interactive exhibit that features recordings of Ricardo Allen, Benjamin Watson, Warrick Dunn, and Takeo Spikes explaining how they became interested in advocating for social justice.
In the context of the dizzying array of football-related activities and demonstrations, the installation stands alone. “We definitely have people who come through and do not understand why we are seeking to address these issues in this space,” says RISE CEO Diahann Billings-Burford. “One of the things we love about this country — because at RISE, we are about uniting our country, we love our country — is that we all get to have differing opinions, because we are Americans. You could feel that way, and it’s your right!”
The centerpiece is an interactive timeline called Road to Progress that traces a history of activism and milestones relating to race in sports from Fritz Pollard to Jackie Robinson to Tony Dungy. The third to last mark on the timeline shows a now-iconic picture of Colin Kaepernick on one knee in protest. “Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem before a 2016 preseason game against the San Diego Chargers,” reads the accompanying blurb. “His act of protest to bring attention to violence against and oppression of people of color continued throughout the 2016 season.” The last entry on the timeline is the formation of the Players Coalition.
“We go in, we address it — we’re pretty much in a grab the bull by the horns situation,” says Billings-Burford. “He is a part of American history, and we like to think that we’re authentic and telling complete history. He inspires some. We can understand how maybe he doesn’t inspire all. But he’s an inspiration for some.”
Even if Kaepernick is only visible at the Super Bowl as a footnote, his message and, specifically, his continued unemployment casts a shadow over much of America’s biggest annual sports event — one that has grown as the justifications for his joblessness become increasingly difficult to believe.
“Just give him a shot,” says Martellus Bennett. “That’s the biggest thing. Don’t just say, ‘Oh, we don’t think he’s good’ — we work out a lot of quarterbacks that we know are not good, all the fucking time.”
Commissioner Roger Goodell was prodded about it at his annual Super Bowl press conference, and proceeded, once again, to give a non-answer: “If a team decides that Colin Kaepernick or any other player can help their team win, that’s what they’ll do.”
The Super Bowl halftime show has become a PR nightmare for the league, as artists who agreed to participate face criticism that they’ve betrayed Kaepernick’s cause. In a recent interview, Cardi B explained, “I got to sacrifice a lot of money to perform. But there’s a man who sacrificed his job for us, so we got to stand behind him.” Everyone from LeBron James to Angela Davis is publicly sporting a Kaepernick jersey — from his Nike collection, not from his days with the Niners.
All the while, there were more officially-sanctioned Super Bowl week events oriented towards social justice work than ever before. Beyond the RISE exhibit at the NFL Experience, the organization hosted a panel at the King Center, gave away Super Bowl tickets, and offered programming for local students. The Players Coalition, the collective that publicly split with Kaepernick and other players including Eric Reid, Michael Thomas and Kenny Stills, held a press conference to announce $2 million in grants to community organizations. The institutional commitment to advocating for equality seems strong in every way — except for the fact that man who inspired all of it had nothing to do with any of it.
“I’m extremely happy for the Coalition, and I’m proud of the work that they’re doing and will continue to do,” says Stills. “But I think all of this progress could have still been made while supporting Colin and making sure that he was taken care of — that we were really pressing the issue with Commissioner Goodell and the ownership. It’s hard for me to want to associate myself with a group that moved on and made a decision without one of our guys. They’re doing great things, but I can’t be part of what they’re doing and that’s sad, because I’d love to be part of it. But it’s not in line with what I feel, or what I think is real.”
Stills, who is a wide receiver for the Dolphins, was asked to contribute his story to the RISE Champions of Change installation, as was Giants safety Michael Thomas. Both declined. Stills cited Ross’s decision to create a policy that made protesting during the anthem punishable by fines or suspensions (which eventually wasn’t enforceable after the NFLPA filed a grievance regarding all anthem-protest policy), which he felt was specifically directed at him as the sole Dolphins player continuing to protest systemic injustice and police brutality during the anthem.
“Him and I are on the same page now, but the way that went down just made me feel like I didn’t want to associate myself with RISE anymore, honestly,” he says. Stills came to Atlanta because he was nominated for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award for the second year in a row, and this year, the NFL required nominees to attend the ceremony to receive half of the $50,000 they’re awarded to give to a charity of their choice. Stills will be donating his money to Colin Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights Camp. Last year, however, he was able to make the donation without attending.
“I just felt like, that wasn’t a part of the deal,” he says. “I feel like I’m here to be their puppet — to be paraded around for all the work that I’ve done. It’s never been about that. I was super last minute on making the decision on if I even wanted to show up or not, but I just didn’t want to be that guy.”
At the Players Coalition press conference, Anquan Boldin, Malcolm Jenkins, Adalius Thomas, Torrey Smith and Demario Davis stood solemnly shoulder to shoulder onstage before they began to explain the painstaking process of identifying grantees that could best use the funds that they have donated themselves, and that the NFL and its owners have pledged to match.
“Players came together to work collaboratively, because we saw that there was a bigger impact that we can have as a collective body,” Jenkins explains, reading a carefully-worded statement that included plenty of evidence of the work the coalition has done so far, including pushing through legislation around bail reform and restoring voting rights. “We wanted to use our platforms to impact systemic issues in our local communities where black and brown people are being disenfranchised every day.”
The conference included a video that outlined the coalition’s primary objectives: “criminal justice reform, police and community relations, and economic and educational advancement.” A photo of Jenkins with his fist raised on the sideline was included in the introduction, and there were several testimonials from organizers who had worked with the group. “They weren’t coming promoting ideas, they weren’t coming to be famous,” says one. “They were coming to learn so that they can make an informed decision about how to use their platform.”
Despite an emphasis on “unity” and “action” that felt directed towards the NFL social justice activists who weren’t in the room, players in the coalition readily acknowledged Kaepernick’s influence. “There have been literally thousands of men over the years who have said these things, have been vocal about them, but nothing moved the needle until Kap took a knee,” Smith says afterwards. “So it’s cool to be able to see the change that has come from that.”
The internal dissent among NFL social justice activists was discussed more explicitly at the RISE panel on Thursday afternoon, which included Falcons safety Ricardo Allen, NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, Cleveland Browns owner Dee Haslam and former NFL player Brian Banks. “At one point, you heard, ‘Well, they shouldn’t be taking anything,’” said Vincent, alluding to the disagreement about whether accepting NFL funds for social justice work amounted to a quid pro quo to stop protesting. “We ain’t getting nothing done without no money. It’s not gonna happen in the backyard, with us cooking and sharing. But that was a criticism.”
Praise for the flexibility and generosity of NFL owners was a recurring theme. “It’s just logical thinking,” said Allen. “If me and you have a relationship, are we better off if we’re on the same team, or if we argue all the time? It’s just easier when we have the owners with us. We can get to more people. We don’t have to fight them, it’s better when they’re on our side.”
“I get asked all the time what I think was the factor in getting this relationship [between the NFL and players doing social justice work] on its course,” Vincent continued, before speaking further on the Players Coalition’s work with ownership via the Listen & Learn initiative. “Frankly, it was the owners. They actually listened.” He later cited NFL owner’s “courage and fortitude,” and shared an anecdote about a nameless player whose blackness was questioned in his community for working with the NFL. “People saying, if you work with the owners, you’re not really down with us,” Vincent said, shaking his head.
ESPN writer Jason Reid, who was moderating, asked panelists where the league would be in five years regarding its relationship with social justice work. Banks brought up Kaepernick. “There’s a player right now who’s on the forefront of all of it who doesn’t have a job,” he said, as Haslam studied the back of her hands. “I think that hiring this particular player would be a huge step forward in saying, ‘We agree that there’s injustice and inequalities, and we’re going to show you that we’re down for the cause starting with getting Kap a job.’” The audience broke into applause, before Vincent quickly rebutted with more exhortations for unity.
“We actually want to see those that say they’re for the cause prove it,” Banks says after the panel. “Show us that you really want to see change. Show us that you believe in equality. Show us that you want to end social injustice. And how do you do that? Give that man his job back. If you don’t, then you’re just blowing smoke.”
Therein lies the sole problem with NFL-sanctioned social justice work, which is — via both RISE and the Players Coalition — directing funds where they are sorely needed and advocating for progressive ideas about equality and reform. The current wave of NFL player activism started with a protest that took the form of powerful symbolism, as well as community work and activism. Kaepernick’s absence from the league hasn’t made the symbolism of his protest any less potent; it’s just been transformed into a symbol of martyrdom, one in which the NFL remains a steadfast persecutor, and not an ally.
“I think the league continues to build itself a bigger hole by just not letting it go,” says Stills. “This is all happening because of Colin. Why are we avoiding that? We’ve gotten to a point where it’s like, you’re either choosing to not see the work that the guy’s doing, or you just have no ability to hear other people’s opinions. It doesn’t have to be this way — that’s the craziest part.”