In 2016, Colin Kaepernick changed the trajectory of political activism in sports when he refused to stand during the national anthem at a San Francisco 49ers preseason NFL game in order to protest police brutality and systemic racism.
That action directly inspired a movement that spread across the NFL, the sports community at large, and even the world, as everyone — from politicians to NBA players, pee-wee football players to college women’s volleyball players, veterans to referees — followed Kaepernick’s lead and took a knee, an action that provoked outrage from many on the right and adoration from many on the left.
But while 2016 was the beginning of Kaepernick’s movement, 2017 was the year that it became clear that there is no end in sight. Even in one of the most tumultuous news cycles in recent American history, Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem continued to resonate with Americans of every race, class, and gender, on both sides of the political spectrum.
Kaepernick managed to be the most impactful athlete of the year despite not playing a single down of football (yes, he’s still unemployed). He managed to be one of the most high-profile and influential activists as well, despite not giving any major interviews. He let his actions, his charity contributions, and occasionally his social media posts, do all the talking.
He continued to fulfill the $1 million pledge he announced last year, donating $100,000 a month to benefit oppressed communities. He continued to hold camps to teach children of color their legal rights. He helped raise money to get a Turkish Airlines plane flown to drought-stricken Somalia to deliver food, water, and assistance to the country. He donated $50,000 to Meals on Wheels, days after Trump announced he wanted to cut funding to the program. He’s supported Native American communities, fought for criminal justice reform, donated to Black Veterans for Social Justice, and reminded everyone that women’s rights are human rights. He didn’t give an interview to GQ when they named him Man of the Year, but he did pose in a shirt featuring the names of Americans murdered by police,
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I enjoyed teaming up with Meals on Wheels, an organization that delivers meals to seniors and those in need to help them live healthier and more nourished lives at home and in our community. As part of my Million Dollar Pledge, I donated $50,000 to them and part of that donation goes toward Oakland, CA residents for everything from ingredients, to packaging, to gas for delivery trucks making sure the people in our community are fed and cared for. Thank you to Meals on Wheels for all the work you do. It is important that we continue to provide support and companionship to those in need. The nutritious meal, friendly visit and safety check help them cope with the three biggest threats of aging: hunger, isolation and loss of independence. Meals on Wheels currently helps nearly 2.4 million seniors and veterans annually in virtually every community in the country. It’s important we take care of those who once took care of us.
While his playing career has been sidelined, he’s garnered plenty of support from the sports world this year — if you exclude NFL owners, that is.
“I’ve commended Kap, and for him to sacrifice everything for the greater good for everyone, for what he truly believed in, the utmost respect to him,” NBA superstar LeBron James said. “Obviously he had a vision like Martin Luther King and like some of our all-time greats that people couldn’t see further than what they were doing at the point and time.
Other sporting greats such as Steph Curry, Cam Newton, Steve Kerr, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Kevin Durant have all spoken out in support of Kaepernick’s talent and character, and outside the athletics arena, he’s found fans in some unexpected places — even a group of NYPD officers rallied in support of Kaepernick this fall.
But it was Kaepernick’s detractors who just couldn’t help from fanning the flames time and time again in 2017. Whether it was NFL teams, who signed arena-league quarterbacks over a guy who took his team to a Super Bowl a few years ago; Sports Illustrated, who tried to memorialize Kaepernick’s impact without including Kaepernick; NFL owners who let slip their belief that the protesting players are akin to prison inmates; or President Donald Trump, who poured gasoline on the fire this fall when, at a rally in Alabama in September, he announced out of nowhere, “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. He is fired. He’s fired!”
Trump’s attacks (which continued on social media for weeks) undoubtedly took the NFL protests to the next level — the weekend after his “son of a bitch” rant, over 100 players took a knee, while hundreds more linked arms or raised their fists to show solidarity. Since then, the debate over protests during the national anthem has enveloped the league, dominating discussion during owners meetings, and even leading to the NFL agreeing to giving $100 million to charities that support oppressed communities — although, it must be said that many players rightly question the NFL’s sincerity and the effectiveness of this plan.
But this isn’t just about Trump, and it isn’t just the NFL. All year long, people have knelt during the national anthem at sporting events, spurring tough, important conversations about racial oppression small towns all across America. In September, ten high school cheerleaders took a knee during the national anthem before a football game in North Carolina. In the spring, a college gymnast in California began taking a knee during the national anthem before each competition, and raising her fist any time she won an award. This summer, the WNBA took things to the next level, as they always do; the New York Liberty held an intense town hall between players, community activists, and police; the Seattle Storm held a rally in support of Planned Parenthood; players all over the league continued to speak out against racial injustice on a regular basis; and teams united to protest during the national anthem after the deadly white supremacy rally in Charlottesville in August. According to data collected by ThinkProgress, more than 3,500 people across the country have joined Kaepernick’s movement since it began last year.
Kaepernick isn’t the first athlete activist, but it’s impossible to deny that he changed the game. He chose a ceremony that means a lot to this nation to peacefully bring up a problem that many don’t want to face. Those who are furious and insulted are only amplifying his message; and by refusing to clap back at every racist tirade directed his way and verbally spar with every critic, he’s let his actions and the power of the movement speak for him. That’s only heightened his impact, and strengthened his coalition.
Kaepernick is currently pursuing a collusion lawsuit against the NFL that could have historic implications for the future of labor relations in the league. He is accusing the NFL owners and league office from conspiring to keep him out of the league because of his protest, and if he wins, the case could trigger the early termination of the current collective bargaining agreement, which has been widely panned for being overly generous to management. This would merely add another facet to his already indelible legacy.
Perhaps Beyonce summed it up best (when does she not?) when she presented Kaepernick with Sports Illustrated’s Muhammad Ali Legacy Award earlier this month.
“Colin took action with no fear of consequence or repercussion, only hope to change the world for the better,” Beyonce said. “To change perception, to change the way we treat each other, especially people of color. We’re still waiting for the world to catch up.”
Kaepernick also spoke a few public words at this event, and used that brief speech to reiterate that this is a cause he’s committed to in the long run, no matter his employment status.
“I accept this award not for myself, but on behalf of the people. Because if it were not for my love of the people, I would not have protested. And if it was not for the support from the people, I would not be on this stage today. With or without the NFL’s platform, I will continue to work for the people because my platform is the people.”
Of course, anyone who has been paying attention this year already knew that. Kaepernick defined 2017, even as he sought to avoid the spotlight, because he truly cares not only about raising awareness for the cause, but about actually doing the on-the-ground, unglamorous work that it takes to truly make a lasting change. Thankfully for us, he’s not planning on stopping any time soon.