As San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick told NFL.com, he was “not looking for approval” for not standing during the national anthem last week to protest racial injustice. But that hasn’t stopped others from standing by his side.
Since his protest gained traction, Kaepernick has been accused of being too rich to protest and being anti-military. Yet despite the criticism, veterans created the hashtag #VeteransforKaepernick on social media. Meanwhile, fellow 49ers teammate Eric Reid joined Kaepernick in taking a knee at the final preseason game. And on Sunday, Megan Rapinoe, a midfielder for the Seattle Reign soccer team, also took a knee, to “keep the conversation going,” she tweeted.
It's the least I can do. Keep the conversation going. https://t.co/qwfHcqgV6J— Megan Rapinoe (@mPinoe) September 5, 2016
For Kaepernick, his act of protest (which he said he plans to continue) is about using his platform as a prominent athlete to highlight the needs of those “who don’t have a voice.” Here is a list of prominent figures who are helping to amplify his message — or at the very least support his right to do so.
1) The 49ers
After his initial protest, Kaepernick explained to NFL.com that he didn’t tell his team about his action before the game. Nonetheless, his team issued an official statement respecting his right to use the moment to take a political stance:
The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.
2) Jim Brown
One of the earliest figures to express solidarity with Kaepernick was former Cleveland Browns Hall of Famer Jim Brown. At a roundtable discussion on NFL Total Access, Brown, known for his own activism during his career, said he was “with [Kaepernick] 100 percent.” He also pointed out how Kaepernick, and athletes like him who are taking a stand, is bringing protest back to professional sports after a long period when money and brand seemed to reign supreme:
I think Pandora's Box is open. I'm very happy that it is. So many years, we had the great Michael Jordan who stated that Republicans buy sneakers, too. So, you know “I’m not gon’ rock this boat. I’m gon’ make this money.” And for a couple of generations it was about making money, not messing with your image. And the agents became the pivotal figure for a lot of these guys. And the agents kept reminding them that you have to be this all-American boy to make these kind of dollars and these dollars are astronomical dollars. So the money came into the culture and created a couple of generations of individuals who did not want to speak up.
3) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
In hopes of “let[ting] athletes love their country in their own ways,” the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, argued for the Washington Post that the uproar against Kaepernick was misguided. And instead of focusing on reprimanding Kaepernick, Abdul-Jabbar wrote that people should look at the disturbing picture that castigating Kaepernick paints of America today:
What should horrify Americans is not Kaepernick’s choice to remain seated during the national anthem, but that nearly 50 years after Ali was banned from boxing for his stance and Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s raised fists caused public ostracization and numerous death threats, we still need to call attention to the same racial inequities. Failure to fix this problem is what’s really un-American here.
In an essay on Medium, 35 US veterans signed an open letter applauding Kaepernick for exhibiting “no finer form of appreciation for our sacrifice” by exercising his First Amendment rights. They acknowledged the long historical legacy of athlete activism, and noted “unequivocal” belief that black lives matter.
But more importantly, they called for others to see Kaepernick’s protest as a rallying cry that everyone make sure the country these veterans served to protect is protecting the rights of everyone, not just a few:
This status quo outrages us as men and women who raised our right hands and pledged to defend, with our lives if necessary, a Constitution that proclaims intent to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility,” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty.” Those ideals are simply not being upheld for all Americans.
As veterans, we implore all Americans to find your own way to challenge this status quo and advocate for “a more perfect union.” Your method of protest may not be to refrain from the traditions surrounding our national symbols, and it doesn’t have to be. You have the same right as Colin Kaepernick to choose whether and how to advocate, a right we support and served for. However you choose to use your voice, please do so with an understanding that many veterans do not condemn the protest of activists like Jackie Robinson, Colin Kaepernick and everyday Americans seeking justice. Indeed, we see no higher form of patriotism.
5) President Obama
The president addressed the controversy around Kaepernick at the G20 summit in China on Labor Day by, at the very least, defending his constitutional right to take a stand:
I think there are a lot of ways you can do it. As a general matter, when it comes to the flag and the national anthem, and the meaning that that holds for our men and women in uniform and those who fought for us, that is a tough thing for [veterans] to get past to then hear what his deeper concerns are.
But I don't doubt his sincerity, based on what I've heard. I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about. And, if nothing else, what he's done is he's generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.
So, again, I haven't been paying close attention to it, but you've heard me talk about in the past the need for us to have an active citizenry. Sometimes that's messy and controversial, and it gets people angry and frustrated, but I'd rather have young people who are engaged in the argument and trying to think through how they can be part of our democratic process than people who are just sitting on the sidelines and not paying attention at all.
My suspicion is that over time he's going to refine how he's thinking about it, and maybe some of his critics will start seeing that he has a point around certain concerns about justice and equality, and that's how we move forward. Sometimes it's messy, but that's the way democracy works.
6) Russell Okung
Russell Okung, an offensive tackle for the Denver Broncos, wrote a powerful essay for the Players’ Tribune, challenging others to follow in Kaepernick’s footsteps. Okung pushed others to find their own ways to combat injustice, to affirm to Kaepernick, “We see you, man”:
I beg that we graduate beyond the thinking of our predecessors. They marched together and had frequent ways to move the needle, but in the modern, technological age, there are so many additional ways to go about trying to improve how our society functions. There are sustainable grassroots community programs that benefit immensely from athlete influence. In addition, we have social media acting as a direct medium to connect with fans and share our voices — we can use Twitter to call out injustice or correct inaccurate quotes, post photos to show our appreciation for getting the opportunity to do what we love every day, and more. Let’s take advantage of this technology and keep the momentum going.
If you’re not sure how to make a difference, look to what goes on around you — in meetings you attend or at the workplace or in the media. Refuse to be a part of anything that won’t move us as a people forward. Know that your platform, regardless if it’s as big as others, matters to our world.
7) Megan Rapinoe
On Sunday, Rapinoe told American Soccer Now that it wasn’t a coincidence she took a knee during the national anthem. She noted she was signaling the “need to have a more thoughtful, two-sided conversation about racial issues in this country.” She also showed solidarity through empathy by using her experience as a gay American to highlight the many ways the country has failed to protect marginalized people:
Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it. It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that’s really powerful.
Mike Freeman reported for Bleacher Report that some top NFL officials aren’t exactly thrilled with Kaepernick’s stance. “I don’t want him anywhere near my team,” an anonymous front office executive said. “He’s a traitor.” Another executive went so far as saying Kaepernick was the most hated player since Rae Carruth — the former Carolina Panthers wide receiver who was convicted of plotting to kill his girlfriend in 2001.
But even if some in NFL management don’t agree with Kaepernick’s response, fans aren’t making it easy for them to openly disparage the quarterback, because it’s simply bad for business.
Within just a week, Kaepernick’s jersey is leading 49ers jersey sales, up from 20th before he publicly decided not to stand for the national anthem, Niners Nation reported.
So while Kaepernick may not have expected support for his protest, he’s getting it. And as he remains committed to the cause of racial justice, it seems there are many ready to stand in his corner.