From the moment Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem to call attention to police brutality and systemic racism before a San Francisco 49ers preseason game back in 2016, he stood alone while the meaning of his silent demonstration was hijacked, contorted and undermined by detractors cloaked in patriotism, either misguidedly or deliberately, as a protest against the US military. The most tremendous of these bad actors was, of course, Donald Trump, at an Alabama rally the following year when he infamously challenged the league’s owners to release anyone who refused to stand: “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!’”
Rather than back the players’ right to freedom of expression, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell gifted Trump a decisive optical victory early in his administration by unveiling a policy requiring every player, coach, trainer, ballboy, referee and executive to stand for the anthem or face punishment.
Four years later – after the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer choked the life from George Floyd in a gruesome extrajudicial murder that was beamed into living rooms throughout the country, sending hundred of thousands into the streets across America to demand police reform – Kaepernick’s protest appears not merely justified but prescient. On Thursday, more than a dozen of the NFL’s biggest stars including Patrick Mahomes, Saquon Barkley, Michael Thomas and Deshaun Watson, the sorts of in-their-prime stars who might have shied away from social issues in the past, posted a video demanding the NFL state that it condemns systemic racism and “admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting”. And congressional legislation tackling police reform that would have been dismissed as politically quixotic only weeks ago has planted itself squarely in the national discourse.
Ever since he first seized on Kaepernick’s protest as a fountainhead of easy political points, Trump has co-opted American sports as not merely a proxy battle in the culture wars that reflect a country’s deep divides but the primary theatre. He’s returned to the well time and again when the polling numbers have called for a jolt, but the events of the past week have shown that the reservoir has run dry.
The horrifying deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have made it so the public can no longer stand by as Kaepernick’s protest is misrepresented: the reality of the long-marginalized scourge of state-sanctioned murder of black and brown people has finally reached a mass audience. Consider New Orleans Saints star Drew Brees, who issued a public apology after he was blasted by teammates and fans for saying he “will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States”.
On Friday, only hours after Trump publicly excoriated Brees for backing down on his long-held stance, Goodell surprised many by releasing the mea culpa his players asked for: “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” he said. “We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter.”
Sport holds a mirror up to society and the reflection isn’t always pleasant. But Goodell’s long-overdue reversal is less noteworthy as a courageous stand, which it is not, and more the barometer of public sentiment it surely is. A recent Monmouth University poll states that a majority of Americans believe police officers are generally more likely to treat black people unfairly than to mistreat white people. And more than three-quarters of the country, including 71% of white Americans, believe “racial and ethnic discrimination is a big problem in the United States” – a 26-percentage-point spike from four years ago when Kaepernick was dismissed by large swatch of the public as an extremist and a clout-chaser.
Goodell may have fumbled the handoff that Kaepernick first gave him in 2016, but he wasn’t going to do it twice. And the commissioner’s tacit endorsement has ensured that taking a knee will become the new locking arms – that is to say, an acceptable and thereby meaningless form of protest. Whenever the next NFL season kicks off, kneeling will become another form of pre-game window dressing: just another patriotic thing to do when the anthem plays.
But this mainstreaming of ideas once regarded as radical is proof that Kaepernick’s protest, and the sacrifice of his NFL career that came with it, was worth the price.
The NFL’s diversity problem is its decision-making ranks has been exhaustively documented, but football itself is the most integrated sport we have in America. It’s not just for black kids, it’s not just for white kids. You can be fat and play on the line. You can be skinny and play wide receiver. You can be a total non-athlete like Tom Brady and win multiple Super Bowls. Which made it somewhat depressing that Brees, a 41-year-old who’s spent more than half of his life around black teammates while becoming a symbol of hope for a city that endured one of the worst racial injustices in American history, continued to push a false narrative in conflating a protest of extreme police brutality with disrespect for the military – especially when he’d been given four years to get up to speed.
Yet Brees’ thoughtful response to Trump’s broadside, addressed directly to the president, represents the sort of teachable moment that’s bound to reach an audience beyond Kaepernick’s influence and further the movement toward justice.
“Through my ongoing conversations with friends, teammates, and leaders in the black community, I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been,” Brees wrote. “We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities.
“We did this back in 2017, and regretfully I brought it back with my comments this week. 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. We are at a critical juncture in our nation’s history! If not now, then when?
“We as a white community need to listen and learn from the pain and suffering of our black communities. We must acknowledge the problems, identify the solutions, and then put this into action. The black community cannot do it alone. This will require all of us.”
Or as LeBron James put it, in more economical language: “Do you understand NOW!!??!!??”
Kaepernick’s movement has inspired a groundswell of athletes beyond the NFL, in a sharp break from the “Republicans buy sneakers too” indifference of the previous generation, to speak on social issues with a frequency and ardor not seen since the high water mark of athlete activism of the 1960s, when champions such as Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith put it all on the line for the advance of justice.
And like those three champions before him, Kaepernick will be remembered as a hero, whether he plays another down in the NFL or not. That’s because the change he effected has shifted global opinion, even if required a second far more tragic knee to bring it to pass. Now the real work begins.