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Is Colin Kaepernick Really Being Heard?

The protest is spreading to other sports, but the message is getting lost

Getty Images
Getty Images

On August 26, Colin Kaepernick sat during the singing of the national anthem. We’re now far enough away from the flash point to understand what’s really changed. Initially alone in his silent (Genial! Respectful!) protest, through measured, thoughtful interview after measured, thoughtful interview, the San Francisco 49ers backup has won more and more people over to his cause. And that cause is, illuminate the plight of darker persons subject to unjust persecution in this country. It started with those in his own locker room, and has spread, with members of the Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Rams, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, and Tennessee Titans either taking a knee or raising a fist prior to the start of their games. Off the field, future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson had a Come To Jesus Moment on live television. In just three weeks, a backup quarterback has taken at least part of the spotlight away from the season kickoff of the nation’s most popular sport.

Before the 49ers took the field against the Rams for the second game of the Week 1 Monday Night Football doubleheader, ESPN’s Lindsay Czarniak asked Kaepernick about his nascent political activism. Kaepernick, who’d been smiling for selfies with supportive home fans during warm-ups, his afro tamed into neat straightbacks for the season opener, gave a simple, earnest answer: “It’s just great,” the quarterback said. “You can see everybody’s paying attention.”

That’s true. From its quaint beginnings half-obscured by water coolers before a preseason game in San Francisco against the Packers, Kaepernick’s protest has become unavoidable for anyone even half paying attention to the NFL. It’s spread beyond football: Seattle Reign and United States women’s national team star Megan Rapinoe knelt during the anthem prior to a match against the Chicago Red Stars, in an act of solidarity with Kaepernick and to accentuate the still-numerous obstacles facing the LGBTQ community.

Then it hit the national pastime. Baltimore Orioles center fielder Adam Jones is at odds with a cadre of ultra-conservative blowhards for the high crime of speaking common sense. When asked for his opinion on Kaepernick’s actions and whether the protest might spread to baseball, Jones produced an unsparing and matter-of-fact assessment in the dead heat of a pennant race: “Baseball is a white man’s sport.” And while obvious — baseball teams are owned primarily by white men, and mostly white men play on them — something like this is almost never said in public. And circumstances don’t even align for Jones to give this statement without Kaepernick taking a seat first.

From a distance, it seems that Kaepernick is winning, if this is indeed what winning looks like.

Forty-eight years ago, Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a single gloved fist on the men’s 200-meter medal podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. It was a silent protest against the grossly unjust treatment of blacks at home and abroad as well as one of the most iconic moments in modern sports history, commonly referred to as the “Black Power Salute.” In a delightful 2012 interview with Vice (during which Smith spoke occasionally in the third person, because you can refer to yourself however you want when you turn history on its head), Smith described how he, Carlos, and the third (white) man on the podium, Australian Peter Norman, set about creating a moment that would beget an image so powerful and enduring that its resonance stretched all the way into Monday night: with a conversation. A “long and mighty” conversation.

That’s not quite how Kaepernick described the talk he had with Nate Boyer, a former Army Green Beret who earned a Bronze Star in Iraq before spending last preseason with the Seahawks as a long snapper, and Niners teammate Eric Reid before San Francisco’s final preseason game against the Chargers. Mostly because nobody really uses the word “mighty” in conversation anymore (which they totally should). But it was long — Boyer, Reid, and Kaepernick spoke for an hour and a half straight about how to navigate the Chargers’ “Salute to the Military” night and still press on with the remonstration the 49ers quarterback set in motion less than a week prior.

Boyer recognized that Kaepernick didn’t have anything against the men and women of the military that are so often used as strawmen, and also understood that not singing the blatant third verse of the national anthem doesn’t magic away the thorny fact that the words “land of the free” weren’t written with people of color in mind.

When everyone had said their piece, Kaepernick and Reid resolved to kneel rather than sit — an even more circumspect way of dissenting, while still showing the due amount of respect to the armed forces.

“We were talking to [Boyer] about how can we get the message back on track and not take away from the military, not take away from pride in our country but keep the focus on what the issues really are,” Kaepernick said. “As we talked about it, we came up with taking a knee because there are issues that still need to be addressed and there was also a way to show more respect for the men and women that fight for this country.”

In the simplest terms, his message is this: America has, time and again, fallen short of its glittery promise. And nowhere is it written that we should have to choke that down without complaint.

Of course, there are always those too skewed by the America they’ve been sold on to appreciate America as it actually is. Those who live in the insular world of loud, whooping nationalism; of pickup truck commercials and flyovers and bald eagles and Budweiser. People who generally reach for the words “freedom” and “troops” too much; the ones who have weighed and measured Kaepernick’s thoughtful, fair, and relatively mild critique, and found it to be shamefully unpatriotic. People like Kate Upton, who volunteered her opinion on the Dolphins players’ actions Sunday afternoon.

Upton would later clarify that these players could and should “speak [their] mind whenever [they] want,” which was generous of her, but under no circumstances should they do so during the anthem. That is just an unimaginative remix to the seminal Well-Meaning But Misinformed Member of the Majority Race hit, “A Protest Is Fine But It Should Only Happen When It’s Convenient For Me.” Trent Dilfer boorishly restated the idea during Sunday NFL Countdown. The Seahawks and the Chiefs reinforced it when they linked arms for their generic statement of unity, which, while very cute, smacked of the #AllLivesMatter predilection for dousing every figurative house when only one is actually on fire and saying something while saying absolutely nothing at all.

Kaepernick has staged out of being a lone conscientious objector into the keynote speaker in this league-wide referendum. Players, former players, owners, spectators, everyone has to choose a side of the fence to come down on, and explain their motivations for doing so.

Smith and Carlos were disqualified from further competition in 1968, but in the grand scheme of things, it was the smallest of costs. Kaepernick could be cut from the 49ers roster tomorrow, and it wouldn’t matter. The idea has already taken root — the conversation has already been started.

It’s a fantastic thing to think about, really: Every NFL player, whether they’d given previous thought to the matter or not, has to now consider their conduct during the anthem; they have to contemplate its meaning, and what it means to others. They’ll be asked to speak on it at every forthcoming media availability, and even if the protest should fizzle out, people will want to know why they’ve stopped. Or, maybe Adam Jones takes a knee before Thursday’s game against the Rays, and then more players take a knee, and it starts a dialogue in baseball that continues through the final two and a half weeks of the regular season on into the World Series. What if Steph Curry finds it within himself to step out of the cushy safety of agreeing with the message, but not the method of delivery? Perhaps, with so many forced to wring out an opinion one way or the other, and with more and more wading into the larger discourse, this whole to-do could bring about the real, discernible change that Kaepernick wants to see.

Of course, it’s possible that the spectacle and the myopic discussion surrounding it eclipses the actual issues at hand — throughout the entire Monday Night Football broadcast, the words “police brutality” or “disproportionate incarceration rate” were never said, though I confess I wasn’t exactly holding my breath for the latter. Maybe the Seahawks’ bland “unity” thing wins out and we all stand together arm-in-arm to march forward in soothing, lukewarm “solidarity,” stepping over any unpleasant thing that threatens the comfortable status quo. Frankly, it’s too early to tell.

Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, Kaepernick’s college teammate at Nevada, being invited to a sit-down with the Denver police chief is the only makeweight we can feel in our hands at the moment, so we’re talking about “progress” in very small if not abstract terms. But the best isn’t perfect, and it’s certainly more than nothing.