It’s a safe bet that if Colin Kaepernick were on an NFL roster, there would be far less controversy surrounding today’s Super Bowl halftime show, generally one of the year’s must-see musical events.
But since 2016, when the former San Francisco 49er’s quarterback took a knee in a preseason game during the singing of the national anthem to protest police shootings of black Americans, almost everything involving the National Football League is contentious, including its heavily promoted mid-game performance.
This year, the musical guest stars — Maroon 5, Travis Scott, and Big Boi — are desperate, second tier choices whose announced appearances set off a contentious debate that overlaps sports, pop culture, politics, and racial divides.
The controversy stems from the enduring legacy of Kaepernick’s protest and how a broad array of celebrities and entertainers have shown their support for the apparently banned quarterback, who hasn’t been signed by a professional team since becoming a free agent in 2017.
Kaepernick has filed a grievance against the NFL, arguing the owners have colluded to prevent him from playing. Meanwhile, social activists — including entertainers and political leaders — have rallied around the quarterback and his cause of shedding more light on abusive police behavior.
That’s the backdrop to this year’s Super Bowl halftime controversy.
Last fall, as they planned to showcase the 2019 game in Atlanta, league officials sought to highlight the city’s vibrant R&B, hip-hop, and black music scene with a sure-fire crowd pleaser. Media reports said that the NFL had offered the headlining spot to Rihanna, but that she declined, citing her support for Kaepernick.
A source said that the singer “does not agree with the NFL’s stance” on kneeling during the national anthem or the league’s treatment of the quarterback.https://t.co/wxUiYC2J2J
— EBONY MAGAZINE (@EBONYMag) February 3, 2019
“The NFL and CBS really wanted Rihanna to be next year’s performer in Atlanta,” a source told Us Weekly in October. “They offered it to her, but she said no because of the kneeling controversy. She doesn’t agree with the NFL’s stance.”
That was only the beginning. Other entertainers, such as Pink who would have sung the national anthem, shunned the high-profile moments at Super Bowl 53, according to Entertainment Weekly.
Eventually, the NFL signed Maroon 5, which almost immediately sparked protests and a petition urging the group not to perform.
“Kaepernick risked his career to take a knee for equality, and the NFL punished him for it,” wrote petition starter Vic Oyedeji. “Until the league changes their policy and support players’ constitutional right to protest, no artists should agree to work with the NFL. Join me in asking Maroon 5 to drop out of the 2019 Super Bowl halftime show.”
— Los Angeles Sports News (@Lakers_newsnow) January 30, 2019
Fearing even more negative reactions, the NFL opted not to have Maroon 5 attend a news conference, but the band’s frontman Adam Levine assured its fans they would appear on stage and give the audience a show.
“You know, I think that when you look back at every single halftime show, people just can’t — it’s this like insatiable urge to hate a little bit,” Levine told Entertainment Tonight. “I’m not in the right profession if I can’t handle a little bit of controversy. It is what it is. We expected it. We’d like to move on from it.”
But moving on isn’t easy. In fact, Maroon 5, which is a mostly white pop music band, didn’t want to appear without guest performing artists — preferably a group or artist of color. Entertainment industry reports say few were willing to do so.
According to a December 2018 Variety report, the band had reached out to “more than a half-dozen stars” to join share the stage at halftime show, including André Benjamin (a.k.a. André 3000 of Outkast), Mary J. Blige, Usher, Lauryn Hill, and Nicki Minaj.
Variety reported that they all turned them down. Most recently, Cardi B, who worked with Maroon 5 on a remix of “Girls Like Us” in 2018, declined an offer.
Overnight, activists placed a large-scale light projection on Atlanta’s @MBStadium. They want to provoke Super Bowl halftime show performers @maroon5, @BigBoi & @trvisXX to #TakeAKnee during their set at #SuperBowl53 (photo courtesy: Alex Rapson) pic.twitter.com/Z8JCQdsJIH
— Nick Valencia (@CNNValencia) February 3, 2019
The show will go on, however. R&B star and Atlanta-native Gladys Knight will sing the national anthem before the kickoff of the game. She was eager to do so and aggressive in defending her right to appear before her hometown audience.
“I understand that Mr. Kaepernick is protesting two things and they are police violence and injustice. It is unfortunate that our National Anthem has been dragged into this debate when the distinctive senses of the National Anthem and fighting for justice should each stand alone,” Knight said in a statement to E! News.
“I am here today and on Sunday, Feb. 3 to give the Anthem back its voice, to stand for that historic choice of words, the way it unites us when we hear it and to free it from the same prejudices and struggles I have fought long and hard for all my life.”
As is his custom, Kaepernick hasn’t commented directly on the Super Bowl halftime controversy. But he has made his feelings quite apparent by thanking those who support him and speak up on his behalf.
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) February 2, 2019
In his own quiet way, Kaepernick — whether he’s in a football uniform or on the playing field — and his legions of celebrity supporters are keeping the pressure on the NFL, making sure his social justice cause isn’t merely a halftime event.