BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
After first being moved to protest police brutality during the 2016 preseason, Colin Kaepernick stated that his decision to sit during the national anthem of the 49ers third preseason game was motivated by his desire to bring attention to issues that resonated with him following the death of Mario Woods in December 2015.
Woods, 26, was a suspect in the stabbing of a man in the Bayview district of San Francisco when police confronted him. After ordering Woods to drop the knife he held, five different officers fired a total of 26 bullets at Woods, killing him. Kaepernick decided he needed to speak up, and use his platform as an athlete to help focus attention on racial injustice and police brutality.
That decision cost him his career as an NFL quarterback.
In light of the recent protests around the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, it is instructive to revisit Kaepernick’s efforts to highlight the institutional racism inherent in the law enforcement community, and in the nation as a whole. These are uncomfortable and emotionally charged concerns, but without trying to see today’s events through the lens of historical perspective, we miss an opportunity to learn about how the leaders of our country, and those in positions of significant influence, shifted the spotlight away from the racism the Kaepernick was decrying, and onto questions about patriotism, respect for the military, and business and financial interests.
The message Kaepernick was so desperately and peacefully trying to get across was intentionally diluted, his pleas for urgent change drowned out by a cacophony of powerful narratives driven by those who sought to preserve the status quo.
In August 2016, before a preseason game against the Packers, Kaepernick chose to sit on the bench as his teammates rose during the national anthem. Kaepernick’s refusal to “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people” drew responses locally and nationally. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder,” he said when asked to explain his decision, referencing the Woods situation, where the five officers involved in the shooting were not formally charged with criminal activity.
Presented next are the reactions from various organizations, leaders and people in positions of power and influence:
49ers coach Chip Kelly: “It’s his right as a citizen, and it’s not my right to tell him not to do something.”
The San Francisco 49ers: “We recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.” The focus of their press release was exclusively on their team policy regarding their player’s right to participate in anthem celebrations. Racism and police brutality are not mentioned by either the coach or the team.
The NFL: “Players are encouraged, but not required to stand during the playing of the National Anthem.” The message being sent is one that places the focus on the legality of Kaepernick’s protest in the context of league rules. No mention is made about the issue Kaepernick is protesting.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he “doesn’t necessarily agree with what he (Kaepernick) is doing,” but supports players who seek changes in society.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump: “I think it is a terrible thing, and, you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him.”
One of the responses Kaepernick received regarding his sit down during the anthem was from Nate Boyer, a former NFL player with the Seattle Seahawks, and a Green Beret. In an open letter to the quarterback, Boyer wrote, “Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it.” Kaepernick agreed to meet Boyer in person, and after discussing the situation, Boyer convinced Kaepernick that taking a knee during the anthem was a more respectful stance from a military perspective, and Kaepernick listened, and agreed. From that point forward, Kaepernick would take a knee during the playing of the anthem.
During the 2016 season, Kaepernick played 12 games, throwing 16 touchdowns and 4 interceptions for a passer rating of 90.7, the 17th best rating among NFL quarterbacks. After the 2016 season, the 49ers released Kaepernick and he hasn’t played a down in the league since in spite of only being 29 at the time.
According to TV ratings, NFL viewership dropped by 8% in 2016. In a survey by JD Power, 30% of fans felt that the kneeling players were the #1 reason they weren’t watching the NFL.
Despite being in the prime of his career, and coming off a largely successful season in 2016, the Super Bowl quarterback could not convince a single NFL team to sign him in 2017. He believed he was being blackballed by NFL owners who were afraid to sign him for fear of the public backlash that his kneeling during the anthem might cause. None of the 32 NFL owners, only one of whom is a minority, would sign him.
49ers safety Eric Reid was the first NFL player to join Kaepernick in kneeling for the anthem. He supported his teammate, sharing his outrage about racism and police brutality and knelt alongside him before NFL contests. When Reid became a free agent after the 2017 season, he was met with deafening silence. No NFL team wanted to offer him a contract to play football, despite being in the prime of his career and still considered an above average safety.
During the one free agent visit he did make with Cincinnati, Reid reported that Bengals team owner Mike Brown asked him if he intended to keep kneeling during the anthem. He declined to provide assurances as to his intentions in that regard, and he left the visit without a contract. He remained unsigned through the summer, and only signed a one-year deal with Carolina in late September after the 2018 season had started. With the Panthers, Reid continued to kneel during the anthem, and despite being thought of highly enough for the team to resign him to a three-year extension, he was cut in March despite playing all 16 games and setting career highs in both tackles and sacks in the 2019 season.
Kaepernick decided to file a lawsuit against the NFL, arguing that he had been denied a job because of his anthem position. Reid also filed a lawsuit against the NFL, alleging that owners colluded against offering him a contract after the 2017 season because of his activism.
In 2019, the NFL settled those lawsuits for what was reported to be roughly $6 million (according to a New York Times story).
President Donald Trump in 2017: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
The rhetoric that followed Kaepernick’s efforts to shine a harsh light on racism and police brutality was largely focused on issues other than those very topics. Patriotism, respect for the flag and the military all were raised as reasons to differ with Kaepernick’s protests. Leaders, and those in positions of influence and power (presidents, coaches, team owners and league officials) helped to shape the national conversation about Kaepernick’s position, and ultimately obfuscated the central message he sought to bring forward. Within months of his initial protest in late August 2016, he was released by the franchise who drafted him-the same franchise he led to the Super Bowl in 2012, and could not get a single other NFL owner to sign him to a contract.
Kaepernick had been effectively silenced by those in a position to provide him a platform to carry his message to the people of the country. The issues of racism and police brutality were tertiary considerations when it came to Kaepernick. He was considered anti-patriotic, disrespectful of the flag and the military, and the fans of the NFL noted that the very protests that he started were among the reasons they weren’t watching as much football on Sundays.
It is not known what percentage of those fans turned off by his kneeling during the anthem actually were aware of the issues he was drawing attention to. The national narrative had been intentionally redirected by those in a position to help shape the conversation-away from racism and police treatment of minorities, and onto less controversial tropes (patriotism, the military, respect for the flag)-to diminish the impact as an agent of real change he had as a professional athlete. Ultimately, that platform was withdrawn from him as well, as he remains unemployed as an NFL player.
In 2018, the NFL enacted a policy that allowed the league to fine players who wouldn’t stand during the playing of the anthem. The policy did allow for players to remain in the locker rooms without fear of being fined. The message was clear: The league didn’t want the viewing public to see its players kneeling during the anthem and to be perceived as anti-patriotic, a characterization that was bad for the business of football. The racism and brutality that was being protested by those players taking a knee did not motivate the NFL to act in such a way.
Trump response to the policy was “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem, or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem, and the NFL owners did the right thing.”
The issue was respect for the flag and patriotism, and the president lauded the NFL owners for working to enact legislative change that enforced those principles. The league revoked the policy several months later.
In 2020, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. The entire experience was captured on video by a local bystander with a cell phone, leaving no doubt as to the actual events that transpired. Within hours, enraged citizens of all ethnicities took to the streets to voice their anger and frustration as yet another African American had lost his life at the hands of a policeman. Fires were started, windows smashed and property destroyed as rioters stormed the streets of the city, and looters were caught on video pillaging stores of their merchandise. Protesters marched towards police precincts, demanding justice for their fallen brother. They screamed for the officer in question to be arrested and charged with murder, and for the three other officers at the scene, who stood by and watched as a man’s life was ended in front of them, to be similarly judged.
Trump: (via Twitter):” I can’t stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis, “A total lack of leadership. Either the very weak ‘radical left’ Mayor, Jacob Frey, gets his act together and brings the city under control, or I will send in the National Guard and get the job done right.”
Trump added, “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank You!”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (via Twitter):”Americans have watched peaceful protests hijacked into violent riots that inflict the kind of injustice they supposedly oppose. Small businesses destroyed. Neighborhoods torn up. Police attacked on city streets. These riots need to stop. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Now.”
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton (New York Times Op-Ed piece):”This week, rioters have plunged many American cities into anarchy, recalling the widespread violence of the 1960’s…But the rioting has nothing to do with George Floyd, whose bereaved relatives have condemned violence. On the contrary, nihilist criminals are simply out for loot and the thrill of destruction, with cadres of left-wing radicals like Antifa infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes…One thing above all else will restore order to our streets, An overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.”
With those comments, the narrative of the situation was manipulated. That is not to say that the violence seen in the streets of cities across the USA did not merit attention or mention by leadership, but the story being tweeted, discussed by the media and seen by the entire world became more about the looting and violent rioting and less about the systemic racism and police brutality that started it all. There were promises to send in the military, characterizations of local leadership as being unfit to restore order, and direct promises of the use of force to quell the unrest. The blatant nature of the public murder was there for all to see and mourn.
The response by those in power paid a modicum of lip service to the fact that another black life had been taken by police brutality, and more energy and focus was diverted to the lawless behavior of those rioting. There seemed to be an intentional effort to reframe the events that took place in Minneapolis, and demonize the violent rioters and terrorist inciters as the primary issue to be addressed.
In 2020, that tactic seems to have been less effective than when Colin Kaepernick took a knee, and there are people willing to say they were wrong about not recognizing that fact back in 2016.
Asked to address the potential for renewed protests by NFL players during the national anthem in response to the George Floyd situation, New Orleans Saints star quarterback Drew Brees responded: “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America, or our country.” Brees had shared comments of that tenor since Kaepernick first brought the issue to the national spotlight in 2016. In 2020, however, his comments were met with swift condemnation from athletes around the world, including two of his own Saints teammates, Michael Thomas and Malcolm Jenkins. Brees was chastened, but, to his credit, he recognized how his words were missing the point, and he said so publicly in an Instagram post and via video, and took the additional step of calling himself out in a virtual team meeting with the rest of his teammates:
“In an attempt to talk about respect, unity, and solidarity centered around the American flag and the national anthem, I made comments that were insensitive and completely missed the mark on the issues we are facing right now as a country. They lacked awareness and any type of compassion or empathy.”
Trump responded to Brees’ reconsideration of the matter:
“I am a big fan of Drew Brees. I think he’s truly one of the greatest quarterbacks, but he should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag. OLD GLORY is to be revered, cherished, and flown high…
“We should be standing up straight and tall, ideally with a salute, or a hand on heart. There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag – NO KNEELING !”
On Instagram, Brees summed up the entire issue concisely and completely:
“We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities. We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform.”
Former NFL executive Joe Lockhart, who worked as a league spokesman from 2016-2018, published an op-ed piece on CNN last weekend. In the article, he notes, “I was wrong. I think the teams were wrong for not signing him. Watching what’s going on in Minnesota, I understand how badly wrong we were.”
“That symbol of racial injustice was reinforced every day that Colin sat on the outside of the football world. It may have seemed like a good business decision for the clubs to not sign him, and it certainly wasn’t illegal, but it was wrong.”
When people in positions of power and influence can not only recognize the true nature of the problem, but publicly admit their complicity in helping to squelch movements designed to achieve true and lasting change, the narrative is finally focused on the right things. Only with tireless, relentless and intentional open-mindedness can this country attempt to heal the racial injustice that has plagued it for more than 400 years. With the recognition of the institutionalized racism that infests some police organizations in the country, lasting change can become possible.
George Floyd was murdered by the police. That act was at least enabled by those who sought to silence Colin Kaepernick back in 2016 when he knelt to bring attention to the racism he saw in the country he lived and worked in. Kaepernick wasn’t the first opponent of racism who saw their lives inexorably damaged based on their public proclamations, but perhaps it is not too late to recognize his courage, and to see him as a champion of a movement that still has miles to go to achieve its aims. If doing so emboldens the next Colin Kaepernick to take a stand on an issue that he/she sees as being unjust, then his sacrifice can live on in the spirit of change.
On June 7th, 2020, the Minneapolis City Council pledged to disband the Minneapolis Police Department. The members vowed to “dismantle and abolish” the department that was responsible for the death of George Floyd, and to build an alternative model of community led safety.