On Thursday, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick proved he’s a man of his word.
In the final preseason game against the San Diego Chargers, Kaepernick, again refused to stand during the National Anthem just as he told reporters he would on Sunday. He was joined by longtime NFL defense player and 49ers teammate Eric Reid, ESPN.com reported.
But the tactic was slightly different this time around. The two consulted with former Green Beret Nate Boyer and, instead of sitting, took a knee to curb criticism that Kaepernick’s original stance offended some veterans.
“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 told ESPN.com. "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."
Kaepernick caused national uproar last Friday when he sat during the National Anthem to call out rampant racial injustice. In addition to accusations of being anti-military, he’s also been called ungrateful and too rich to protest. Nonetheless, Kaepernick says he will continue using his platform to address inequalities black people face both on and off of the field.
Kaepernick shows how the movement for black lives has inspired a new generation of black athletes to call out racism
Three years after the Black Lives Matter organization was created, the movement for black lives has exploded into a national black-millennial led movement for racial justice, with prominent black athletes like Kaepernick counted among them.
After a grand jury decided not to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for Michael Brown’s death, the St. Louis Rams ran onto the field in a “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture in solidarity with the protesters in nearby Ferguson. The next month, NBA players Derrick Rose, LeBron James, and Kyrie Irving warmed up wearing, “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts on the court to honor Eric Garner, who died after NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold.
Kaepernick’s preseason has shown this wasn’t just a quick trend among athletes. “I’m going to continue to stand up with people that are being oppressed,” Kaepernick told reporters. And he is joined by a wave of other young black athletes, who, inspired by the contemporary fight for racial justice, are doing the same thing.
Black WNBA players for the Minnesota Lynx wore Black Lives Matter shirts during warmups following the killings of Philando Castile in their home state and Alton Sterling in Louisiana by police in early July. Similarly, after Simone Manuel made history at the Rio Olympics as the first African-American woman to win an individual gold medal in swimming, she called attention to police brutality — just days after the Department of Justice released a scathing report on the Baltimore Police Department, detailing numerous racial abuses endemic to the department that are mirrored in police departments around the country.
Despite the disproportionate number of officer-involved killings, hope for accountability is often fleeting because police are rarely indicted for killing civilians, even as more video evidence of those killings becomes available.
As Kaepernick publicly aligns himself with the movement for black lives, the backlash mirrors the kind of criticism activists constantly face, and that shapes the way Americans talk about racism today.
Why it matters that Kaepernick is speaking out as an athlete
As Ijeoma Oluo pointed out in the Guardian, one simple question hovers over Kaepernick: Why doesn’t he “just stick to football”?
The reason: There’s simply no buffer for racism — no matter what jersey someone wears, how much money they have, or what their ancestry might be. And professional sports leagues are key places where racial inequalities remain stark.
In the NFL, black players make up 68 percent of the league, but no black person has ever owned a national team. Given the fact that the NFL’s fan base is 83 percent white, black football players are pressured to stay silent and just literally and figuratively play the game.
But stereotypes that define black athletes by their physical prowess, not their intelligence, also limit the kind of freedom players like Kaepernick have.
As Lindsay Gibbs explained for Think Progress earlier this year, “black athletes were either steered away from the quarterback position in their youth, or forced to abandon it before they were allowed to play football professionally” because they weren’t considered “intelligent enough to play the position of quarterback, and their athleticism could be better used in skill positions.”
Kaepernick’s statement is powerful precisely because he’s in a position he was never meant to occupy. And while there is no indication what specific repercussions Kaepernick will face, his willingness to stand up against racial injustice — especially as a black quarterback — represents a pivotal moment of him taking the lead both on and off the field.