(CNN) — No one had noticed Colin Kaepernick sitting on a bench as the American national anthem rang out during a pre-season match on August 16, 2016. No questions were asked, no objections raised.
There was no indication that the quarterback would become America’s most polarizing sports star. Perhaps it was because the then-injured Kaepernick was not wearing his San Francisco 49ers uniform on that summer night in Houston.
Six days later, at a home game with the Denver Broncos, Kaepernick was still injured, still protesting, yet fans, journalists, the 49ers, the NFL and its owners were still unaware a storm was brewing.
But on August 26, after a game against the Green Bay Packers, a reporter looked closer at a picture of the 49ers and noticed Kaepernick sitting alone near the coolers as everyone else around him stood while the anthem played.
Questions were asked. Word spread. Kaepernick became the most talked about athlete in America. A villain to some, a hero to others.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick, then 28, told NFL.com’s Steve Wyche, the man who broke the story.
“To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.
“There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Rising against injustice
This was a star quarterback in America’s most popular sports league. A black man with a black biological father and a white biological mother, adopted by white parents who raised him in the predominantly white northern Californian town of Turlock, drawing attention to police brutality.
It was not, he would reiterate, a protest against the military or the flag, though that message would become lost over the next two years, drowned out by the ire and the applause.
A tiny ripple quickly built into a wave which aimed to sweep down the walls of oppression. From San Francisco to Seattle, from the NFL to the National Women’s Soccer League, from elite sports stars to college kids, there were many who wanted to strike out with Kaepernick against injustice.
For the 49ers’ fourth preseason match Kaepernick took to one knee during the anthem; his teammate Eric Reid joined him.
On the same night Seattle Seahawks’ Jeremy Lane sat for the anthem. Days later Megan Rapinoe was the first white athlete to take the knee, doing so before a professional soccer match, and on September 9 Denver Broncos’ Brandon Marshall became the first NFL player to do it in a regular-season game.
Critics emboldened, supporters inspired
Two years on, Kaepernick is unemployed after opting out of his contract in March 2017 before the 49ers could release him and has largely maintained a public silence over the last 12 months. But he is more powerful than he has ever been.
But he returned to the spotlight this week when it was revealed Kaepernick, a Nike athlete since 2011 but not featured in its campaigns since his departure from the NFL, would be the poster boy for company’s 30th anniversary Just Do It ad.
With a black and white picture of the kneeling quarterback-turned-activist superimposed with the nine words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” Kaepernick has returned to the forefront of public debate. He didn’t have to say a word, or make a single play.
Over these last few days his supporters have been inspired, his critics emboldened.
Nike trainers and socks have been burnt, the hashtag #boycottnike was trending on Twitter through much of Tuesday. US President Donald Trump, who last year described the NFL protesters as “sons of bitches” and whose frequent comments on the issue has fueled the flames of national debate, said Nike’s ad sent a “terrible message.”
Kaepernick and Reid, who like his former teammate remains unsigned, received ovations at the US Open last week when they were shown on the big screen. Former CIA director John Brennan lauded the former 49er, and by using Kaepernick Nike — a multibillion-dollar company whose interest lies in selling sportswear — has made it clear whose side it is on. They are not with the President on this.
Whether the majority of the NFL’s white, conservative billionaire owners like it or not, Kaepernick is the face of the league which the player himself believes blacklisted him.
A global icon
The man who would spend his time time as a player quietly attending lectures at the University of California, Berkeley, to learn about black history is a cultural star, fast turning into a global icon.
“He’s monumentally more famous than he ever was as a player,” Nate Boyer, a former American footballer and Green Beret, tells CNN Sport.
“He’s probably one of the biggest pop culture icon at least out of sport that there is and it’s all due to the demonstrations, it’s nothing to do with football really.”
Boyer has been closely associated with the protest since the beginning, writing an open letter to Kaepernick that was published in the Army Times, which culminated in a face-to-face discussion between the two men. During that meeting, Kaepernick was persuaded by Boyer to kneel for the national anthem rather that sit as it showed, in Kaepernick’s words, “more respect for the men and women that fight for this country.”
Boyer admits he did not think the issue would become as big as it has, but urges Americans “to be smarter” and calls for the man who is now known for a simple, silent gesture to be more vocal.
“To really believe that half of our country is stupid and your side has all the answers and the other half doesn’t have a clue is ignorant,” he says, answering one of hundreds of questions he has been asked on Kaepernick this week, though the pair have not spoken for a while.
“I want to get back to unity in this country. I think Colin can be a big part of bringing us together, but it’s going to take him being vocal, being involved with people on both sides of an issue and reaching across.
“I know Colin can do that because he did it with me, so he’s capable of that. More Americans need to see that because we don’t see it, we just see reactions to one side of the story. I would continue to encourage him to be part of that.”
‘The Muhammad Ali of his generation’
Around the time Kaepernick met Boyer, the player was as much a part of the public discourse as the Presidential election, making headlines with his words and actions.
He received death threats, his teammates voted him the winner of the Len Eshmont award “for inspirational and courageous play,” Time magazine put him on the cover kneeling next to the words “The Perilous Fight,” and earlier this year Amnesty International honored Kaepernick with its ambassador of conscience award.
Described as “the Muhammad Ali of this generation” by civil rights activist Harry Edwards, Kaepernick promised to donate $1 million of his salary to various organizations and continued to speak out, saying that “cops are being given paid leave for killing people. That’s not right. That’s not right by anyone’s standards.”
But, aside from social media posts, the former 49er has been quiet since the end of 2016. He has not spoken to the media since he filed his grievance against the NFL, accusing the league’s owners of conspiring to keep him out because of his protests.
The NFL has attempted to have the case thrown out, but last month the arbitrator determined that Kaepernick’s lawyers had unearthed enough credible evidence to allow the case to proceed to a full hearing. It will no doubt keep Kaepernick in the news during the NFL season.
There are no shades of gray when it comes to Kaepernick. Everyone has an opinion. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, former President of Iran, tweeted this week: “… unfortunately once again @Kaepernick7 is not on a NFL roster. Even though he is one of the best quarterbacks in the league.”
Though his form dipped since his starring role against the New England Patriots in 2012 which led the 49ers to the playoffs and, ultimately, the SuperBowl, statistics suggests Kaepernick is still good enough for the NFL. He threw 16 touchdowns and four interceptions in 2016, while in that November he had the best first-half performance by a 49ers quarterback since Steve Young in 1997.
Much has happened to the young player who gave rise to “Kaepernicking” during the 2012 season, a reference to the act of kissing his tattooed biceps to celebrate a touchdown. Those tattoos led one columnist to compare him to a prison inmate, his first brush with being the cause of fury.
A worldwide platform
Of course, Kaepernick is not the first black athlete to make a stand against social injustice and suffer as a consequence.
Craig Hodges was a sharpshooter for the Chicago Bulls and outspoken on a number of issues, from poverty in the black community to the Gulf War.
He turned up to the White House’s congratulatory ceremony in a full-length dashiki with an eight-page letter intended for President George Bush. He was cut by the Bulls that offseason and never played in the NBA again.
John Carlos and Tommie Smith shook the world at the 1968 Olympics by raising their fists on the podium during the American anthem. They received death threats on their return to America and were suspended from the US track team. Former broadcaster Brent Musberger, when writing a columnist for the Chicago American, described the Olympians as “a pair of dark-skinned stormtroopers.”
And there is “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali, who refused to fight in Vietnam. The heavyweight champion was stripped of his crown and reduced to making a paid appearance at a boat show in his hometown of Louisville, his passport taken away, along with his ability to make a living.
In the absence of football, the Nike deal gives Kaepernick a worldwide platform and such a major endorsement will likely give other athletes further strength to stand by their convictions in an age where the country’s most commercially viable stars are in open opposition to the President. Athletes perhaps have more power than they realize.
“What this might mean is that there is space for athletes to be part of this conversation about race and social justice without having to risk their endorsements and I think that’s important,” Professor Louis Moore, associate professor of history at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University, tells CNN Sport.
“I hope it gives companies the same confidence to support athletes too. That they will see that maybe having an athlete who is politically engaged isn’t bad.”
But Kaepernick’s voice could have been louder, says Moore.
“Kap stayed silent for a year. He could’ve taken advantage of 24 hours news, social media, but he stayed silent,” he explains.
“Ali, he stayed active, he did tours, he was on the news, he did radio. Kap stayed silent for a year. In that sense, he has an ability to have a bigger platform because of social media but he didn’t use it.
“But he’ll always be in that conversation about those key figures, Ali, Smith … He’s a part of history, in a good way too.”
Message louder than ever
Over the last two years Kaepernick’s conduct has not been without fault: he has worn socks featuring cartoon pigs wearing police uniform, a t-shirt featuring former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, and was heavily criticized for revealing that he did not vote in the 2016 election. But he has been successful in affecting the national dialogue.
“He forced us to have a conversation about race and racism and police brutality and he forced people to wrestle with this reality that these things exist in America,” says Moore.
“Whenever a black athlete speaks out it highlights issues. That’s his impact. It’s a conversation that’s been going on for two years. It’s going to be an ongoing conversation. This is where we’re at as a nation.
“Kaepernick will be part of that conversation for a while because of Nike and also because the NFL has started. That conversation around criminal justice and police brutality is front and center in America right now, not only because of Kapernick but because we have cameras and we see all this stuff all the time on social media, on the news, and that’s something we have to deal with as a country.”
At the start of his protest, Kaepernick said: “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
The football has been taken away, the game goes on without him, but his message is louder than ever.
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