A new NFL season is here, and that doesn’t just mean fun times with football like the NFL wants. It also means that the national movement started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is center stage once again.
In protesting social injustice and police brutality against people of color by peacefully kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, Kaepernick has sparked a large conversation — and debate. In the two years since, that has led to Kaepernick’s collusion lawsuit against the NFL and a new anthem policy from the league that was soon halted following backlash.
There’s a lot to keep up with, and all of it is important to understand going into another season of play. Here is a look at how we got here, where things are now, and what to expect going forward.
How the protests got started
Kaepernick sat for two preseason games before anyone noticed. He was quick to elaborate on his decision to protest.
“I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”
Kaepernick eventually tweaked the protest after speaking with Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret and NFL long snapper. Boyer advised him that kneeling instead of sitting would be a good middle ground to try and get the narrative back on track, as critics said that sitting was disrespectful to the flag and the military, which wasn’t at all the case.
His teammate at the time, safety Eric Reid, was the first to join Kaepernick in kneeling. Like Kaepernick, Reid is currently out of a job and embroiled in a legal battle with the league.
How the movement grew
On the same day that Kaepernick started kneeling, Sept. 1, Jeremy Lane of the Seattle Seahawks sat during the anthem, becoming the first non-teammate of Kaepernick’s to do so. Then players from other sports joined in, including Megan Rapinoe and all of Garfield High School’s football players.
During the regular season opener, Brandon Marshall of the Denver Broncos took a knee. A few days later, players from the Seahawks, Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots began to demonstrate during the playing of the anthem as well.
But lots of folks were mad, especially the president
The backlash against the protests was widespread — and misguided. President Donald Trump got involved, consistently trying to muddy the waters and change the narrative by telling his supporters that players were “disrespecting the flag.”
The outrage continued — fed by the president’s appetite for cheap political gain by criticizing players — even after public dialog with players, veterans, and others showed it wasn’t about the anthem, the flag, or the military. It was about the suppression of black voices that attempted to shake the status quo.
What’s the latest with Kaepernick?
Kaepernick’s collusion case moves forward
Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers, who were likely going to cut him anyway, in 2017. The talented quarterback became a free agent, and he still is today, despite proving he can still play.
He believes he’s being blacklisted by the NFL and filed a grievance against NFL owners for collusion as a result. He was joined a year later by Reid, who also remains a free agent.
The league requested the case be thrown out in summary judgment, but failed in its bid. Our own Tyler Tynes spoke with attorney Jaia Thomas about the decision and what it means going forward:
Thomas: However this case turns out is going to set a precedent. Eric has the same attorney as Colin. Whatever Colin’s attorney was able to produce, there’s a pretty good chance he will be able to produce the same type of evidence on behalf of Eric. If Colin’s case completely moves forward and finds success, we can with certainty almost say the same will happen with Eric. That being said, I think the NFL will have to start re-examining and re-evaluating the ways in which they treat players and penalize them for using their free speech and right to speak up.
Kaepernick becomes the face of Nike’s campaign
Before the 2018 season started, it was announced that Kaepernick would be the face of Nike’s 30th anniversary for the “Just Do It” campaign. Here’s the first ad:
What’s happening with the NFL’s new anthem policy?
This offseason, the NFL owners passed a new rule that they tried and failed to sell as a “compromise.” It gave players two choices: they could either stand for the anthem before the games, or they can stay in the locker room for the anthem. If players decide to break policy, their teams get fined and then the team can decide what punishment (or non-punishment) to dish out to those players.
The NFL quickly suspended the new policy pending further discussions with the NFLPA in yet another damage control move. Here’s what that means for the players and the league.
Heading into the 2018 season, the policy — and enforcement of any discipline — remains on hold as the NFL and the NFLPA hammer out details.
A report from the Washington Post hours before the season opener, said that a group of owners was pushing for a compromise with the NFLPA where the union would endorse players standing for the anthem while teams waived discipline for players who protested.
But according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, any kind of agreement is unlikely.
The new policy is going to be no policy — at least for this season, according to sources.
Too many people have stances too strong to figure out a compromise, but an NFL official insisted Sunday morning that there is continuing dialogue on the topic as the league looks for ways to address social justice issues.
Either way, the original message behind the protests, the one that the NFL, Donald Trump and countless others have tried to obscure with false equivalencies, is one that absolutely cannot be lost.
Are NFL players still protesting?
The 2018 preseason saw renewed protests in spite of the league’s attempts to quell activism. Eagles defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins and De’Vante Bausby raised their fists during the pregame anthem for their preseason opener against the Steelers; teammate Chris Long put his arm around Jenkins to unite two of the league’s loudest voices in the fight for equality. Several other players on the team wore T-shirts bringing attention to issues with both voter registration and incarceration rates.
Before we enjoy this game lets take some time to ponder that more than 60% of the prison population are people of color. The NFL is made up of 70% African Americans. What you witness on the field does not represent the reality of everyday— Malcolm Jenkins (@MalcolmJenkins) August 9, 2018
America. We are the anomalies... pic.twitter.com/gCeNKuTl1d
Later in the preseason, Jenkins waited in the tunnel during the anthem.
At the regular season opener, though, Jenkins and most of his Eagles teammates stood during the national anthem without demonstrating. The closest exception, according to MMQB’s Albert Breer, was defensive end Michael Bennett.
Closest thing to any action on the anthem: Eagles DL Michael Bennett was walking around at the start of it, and sitting at the end of it.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) September 7, 2018
The defending champions weren’t the only ones to make a statement in preseason. Dolphins receivers Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson knelt before their squad’s exhibition opener. They continued to kneel into the regular season, drawing praise from Kaepernick during the Dolphins’ Week 1 game.
And, as expected, President Trump had some very public feelings about that.
The Eagles will be in the spotlight again when the NFL regular season begins Thursday night. Philadelphia will play host to the Falcons in a primetime showdown that will likely stand as one of 2018’s most-watched games of the year. But despite a roster loaded with activists earning a national broadcast, the league was not expected to have a solution to its anthem policy woes before the season can officially kick off.
Tonight’s opener between #Eagles & #Falcons looms, and @NFLprguy says, "Dialogue continues among NFL and NFLPA and players” on a national anthem policy. The expectation is no final decision by tonight, I’m told. FYI, out of 2,880 players in the preseason, 2 took a knee and 1 sat.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) September 6, 2018
Before the season started, NBC told USA Today that it hasn’t decided whether it will show the anthem during its broadcasts. ESPN has already announced that it will not air the anthem during Monday Night Football.