Colin Kaepernick no longer kneels alone.
In the weeks since the San Francisco 49ers back-up quarterback first refused to stand during the national anthem as a way to protest police brutality and racial injustice, 17 players across the NFL have joined him, either by taking a seat, kneeling, or raising their fists during the Star-Spangled Banner. It’s spread beyond the NFL too; soccer star Megan Rapinoe, as well as high school and college athletes from across the country, have joined in.
But, as the activism has spread, so has the biting criticism. Some, such as Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, have said that it’s “fallacious in the extreme” for Kaepernick and the others to “disrespect the entire system when [they] have reaped so much benefit from it.” ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer accused Kapernick of putting “himself and his stance above the team.” According to Dilfer, Kaepernick’s job as a back-up quarterback is “to be quiet and sit in the shodows and get the starters ready to play Week One,” not become “the center of attention” and “[disrupt] the organization.”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said that perhaps Kaepernick “should find a country that works better for him.” Model Kate Upton said that this is “unacceptable,” and that the players should be “proud to be an American.” Other observers, like NASCAR driver Michael McDowell, have claimed that they are “done watching football because the “embracing of this disrespect is absurd.”
The debates over the method haven’t kept the protests from spreading, but they have muddled the message.
The debates over the method haven’t kept the protests from spreading, but they have muddled the message. Somehow, this has turned into an argument over whether or not the protesting athletes love America enough and whether these athletes are educated enough, oppressed enough, or even black enough to make a stand.
Over and over, the same message is repeated: Yes, racism is bad. Sure, we can talk about it. But not now. Not like this. Not with these people. Not while we celebrate America.
That’s been frustrating to Rapinoe, who so far is the only white pro athlete to join the movement. Rapinoe took a knee in solidarity with Kaepernick two weeks ago, but last week her protest was thwarted by Washington Spirit owner Bill Lynch, who decided to play the national anthem while the players were in the locker room, a move that Rapinoe called “fucking unbelievable.” On Sunday, September 11, Rapinoe abandoned her plan to take a knee, and ended up locking arms with her teammates.
“I wanted to, and just in general, be as effective as I can in this space and still exercise my right to protest and try to talk about what I really want to talk about, which has been really difficult,” she said. “A lot of people don’t want to talk about that. It’s all about the vehicle of the protest, or about what I’m doing, or about the military, about being American.”
There’s a reason people don’t want to talk about racial inequality. It’s uncomfortable. It’s pervasive. It’s systemic.
It’s easier to debate someone’s degree of patriotism than it is to talk about the fact that the racial wealth gap has nearly tripled since the Civil Rights era; that people of color are more likely to be targeted for subprime loans than white people with similar credit scores, and more likely to get turned down for conventional mortgage loans; that wealthy black people are still more likely to live in poor, underserved areas than middle-class white people; that black students in preschools are nearly four times as likely to be suspended than their white classmates; that African Americans receive longer sentences committing the same crimes as white people, and are 20 percent more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences.
It’s easier to debate someone’s degree of patriotism than it is to talk about the fact that the racial wealth gap has nearly tripled since the Civil Rights era.
It’s more convenient to talk about how disrespectful a player is being to the troops by peacefully raising a fist or taking a knee than it is to address the fact that unarmed black Americans are five times as likely as an unarmed white American to be killed by police.
Debating whether or not Kaepernick is a distraction to his team is far more enjoyable than talking about the fact that Eric Garner, a father of six and grandfather of three, is dead, while the cop that choked him to death has received raises since the killing, and is now making $120,000 a year.
This is about racism, police brutality, accountability, and, ultimately, change.
“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 said. “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.”
That message has struck a chord with people all across the country.
Eric Reid, a father of two and safety for the 49ers, and Jeremy Lane, a cornerback for the Seahawks, were the first two NFL players to join Kaepernick’s protest.
“My goal is to bring awareness to issues of our country and helping to effectuate positive changes for the betterment of our communities,” Reid wrote on Instagram. “In kneeling, I hope to accomplish that goal and relate the act to that of the flag being at half mast.”
Like Kaepernick, one of Reid’s biggest concerns is police brutality, and the lack of accountability for officers involved.
“I am collaborating with a very good family friend, who served on the police force for over 30 years here in California, on how to strengthen the relationship between police and civilians,” he said, adding that he plans to continue his outreach efforts in his hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
— Eric Reid (@E_Reid35) July 7, 2016
“I just like what he’s doing, and I’m standing behind him,” Lane said of Kaepernick. “It’s something I plan on keep on doing, until I feel like justice is being served.” (He notably did not kneel this past week, instead participating in a “demonstration of unity” with the rest of the Seahawks.)
Last Thursday night, Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall followed Kaepernick’s lead by taking a knee before the season opener against the Carolina Panthers.
“I’m not against the police. I’m not against the military. I’m not against America. I’m against social injustice,” he told reporters. “This movement is something special.”
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The stakes for Marshall, and for everyone else involved, are extremely high. Since Thursday, he has already lost two endorsement deals. But he doesn’t plan to stand up for the anthem yet.
That’s because, as Marshall told Robert Klemko of the MMQB, he has dealt with racial profiling his entire life. Just this summer, he was having dinner with friends in downtown Miami when shots rang out nearby. Diners hid under the tables in fear, and police came and asked everyone to leave. As Marshall was exiting from a side door, he was tackled and handcuffed by police because another patron was upset he wasn’t exiting from the front door.
“A cop pulls his Taser out, they push me up against the wall and they handcuff me and they were going to take me in for resisting arrest but they eventually let me go,” Marshall said. “So they’re looking for a suspect, and some lady yells at me, and that’s enough to tackle me?”
When Marshall entered concussion protocol during Thursday night’s game, fans took to Twitter to celebrate.
“So many people have trouble understanding and empathizing,” Marshall said. “I saw somebody say ‘Go back to where you’re from.’ I’m from Vegas. It’s hate and it’s exactly what we talk about. People celebrating a possible concussion are proving my point.”
Arian Foster, who knelt along with three of his Miami Dolphins teammates on Sunday, also had people tell him on social media that he could leave this country if he doesn’t like it. But, as reported by the Miami Herald, Foster said that comment just further showcases the racist divide in America.
To that, he responded: “What do you mean? Where can I go? … African Americans are the only people in America who don’t have a heritage, because of slavery. We’re descendants of genocide, and people don’t like to talk about that. It’s the truth. We’re the descendants of genocide. So when you say, ‘You can leave,’ where to? I don’t know where my people come from. Am I from the Congo? Am I from Kenya? Am I from the Ivory Coast?
“I have no idea where my lineage comes from, and that is a huge issue as to why there’s a self-identity crisis in our neighborhoods. We’re taught to hate ourselves for generations. And people are just quick to say, ‘Get over it. Get over it. Slavery happened a long time ago.’ I grew up in a domestically violent household. There are effects that I grew up with and had to deal with emotional issues growing up with domestic violence in my house. That’s one generation removed.
Now here’s 300 years of slavery, you’ve seen your people get people, have them told you aren’t anything. Written in laws that they’re three-fifths a human being for 300 years. You’re telling me there’s no psychological effects that won’t trickle down in your bloodline? Of course there are. Until this country addresses is, this will happen.”
Foster was so moved by Kaepernick, Reid, Lane, and Marshall that he met with all of his teammates to discuss ways they could make a statement of their own. Three of his teammates— wide receiver Kenny Stills, defensive back Michael Thomas, and linebacker Jelani Jenkins — joined him on one knee.
loving and understanding your freedoms and rights isn't hate. RT @TJ_Yates: It blows my mind how many people hate the country they live in.
— feeno (@ArianFoster) August 27, 2016
“ I chose to get involved to see if I can create change,” Jenkins said. “Raise awareness. I want to make sure there’s no disrespect to anyone. Love is progress, hate is expensive. I’d like to keep moving on with everyone with equal rights, equal opportunities. From my position, it doesn’t seem that is happening. I hope to push change. I want people to understand I love everyone, I want to live in a world where everyone has equal rights.”
Standing on the sidelines during the national anthem in Kansas City on Sunday, Chiefs quarterback Marcus Peters was the lone player to join in the protests. He didn’t take a knee, though. Instead, he rose his fist, a nod to the 1968 Olympics black power salute by African American athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith that was used to protest the state of civil rights in the nation.
“I’m just stating that I’m black and I love being black. I’m supporting Colin (Kaepernick) and what he’s doing as far as raising awareness with the justice system,” Peters told reporters. “It’s not about attention for me. I’m more so don’t talk about it, be about it. I come from a majority black community from Oakland, California. I grew up around my people a lot. The struggle I see, I got family members still struggling. We want to educate the youth that is coming up. If we keep educating the kids we’ll eliminate these problems.”
That action spread quickly too. Two New England Patriots — tight end Martellus Bennett and free safety Devin McCourty — as well as Tennessee Titans defensive end Jurrell Casey, linebacker Wesley Woodyard, and cornerback Jason McCourty, raised their fists on Sunday as well. On Monday, Kaepernick and Reid’s teammates Eli Harold and Antoine Bethea repeated the action, as did two members of the opposing team, Los Angeles Rams Robert Quinna and Kenny Britt. (Britt isn’t a stranger to protests; he led the St. Louis Rams in a “Hands up, don’t shoot!” salute two years ago after Michael Brown was shot.)
It's sick at how much racism is still in this world.
— 7️⃣even (@EliHarold_) September 11, 2016
Harold said his decision to join was a direct response to the criticism that Kaeprenick received from Dilfer.
“If a guy wants to stand up and believe in something, you shouldn’t shoot him down and talk down on him and say he put himself above the team when that wasn’t the issue,” Harold said. The 49ers, it should be said, did not look a bit distracted in their season opener, which they won 28–0 over the Los Angeles Rams.
“I did it to keep the conversation going. A lot more guys in the league want to do it but they are afraid,” Bethea, whose father was in the Army, told reporters. “I respect why Kap is doing it. I respect his purpose. This is not to disrespect anyone, but we have a platform and we have to bring awareness to the issues. Now, though, it’s time to take the next step and take actions into the community.”
It’s important to note that many of these players have already been putting in the hard work in their communities. Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard has a foundation, 16 Ways, that works with at-risk youth between the ages of eight and 18, helping them build self-esteem, promote responsibility for one’s own actions and overcome obstacles.
Foster founded the Arian Foster Family Foundation in 2015 as a way to help kids in underserved communities have access to the education, nutrition, and personal development opportunities they need for success. Bethea, who finished his degree in Administration of Justice from Howard University in 2011, during his NFL career, started the Safe Coverage Foundation, which has a “commitment to providing access and resources for students to achieve their dreams of a higher education.”
Casey, whose older brother is incarcerated for murder, has created the Casey Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to help prisoners transition back into society, primarily by raising money for inner-city youth programs, mentoring, re-entry programs, and halfway houses.
Thomas has long been a part of a group called The First Step, which focuses on bridging a gap between underprivileged kids and the police. This summer, just weeks after he earned an MBA from the University of Miami, he received a President’s Volunteer Service Award thanks to the impact he has made in the community.
“We’re talking about the White House is talking about it. People outside of sports are talking about it. There was nothing else he could have done to get this type of attention.”
But even with all the work he’s doing on his own, Thomas recognizes that the media attention Kaepernick has brought to this issue is absolutely invaluable. He told reporters that refusing to stand during the national anthem was absolutely the best way for Kaepernick to go about effecting the change he desires.
“A press conference doesn’t get that type of attention,” Thomas said. “Him doing it on his social media or what-not doesn’t get that same type of national attention. So now he’s got the national attention. We’re talking about the White House is talking about it. People outside of sports are talking about it. There was nothing else he could have done to get this type of attention. So now, let’s stop talking about how people are feeling offended about it disrespecting the military and the flag, let’s talk about the actual issue that he was standing up for.”
Kaepernick and the rest of the protesters don’t have one tangible demand, and they don’t have all the answers. They know that simply taking a knee during the anthem is not going to magically solve racial injustice. But they are tired of the status quo, and sick of waiting for progress that is happening at a tortoise’s pace, if at all. So they’re kneeling and raising their fists and talking to their teammates and coaches, owners and fans, media members, friends, and family. They’re reaching out to police in their local communities and other activists in the space. They’re risking their own livelihood and popularity to try and change the world for the better.
“I don’t want to kneel forever,” Kaepernick said. “I want these things to change. I do know it’ll be a process and it’s not something that’s going to change overnight.
There’s nothing comfortable or easy about this, but there are signs that Kaepernick’s protest is working. Not only has it spread, but Kaepernick’s jersey sales have skyrocketed. And the quarterback has announced that he will donate all the money he receives from those sales back to the community. He’s also donating $1 million of his own salary to charities that support these causes, and the 49ers organization has matched that donation.
On Sunday, Dolphins owner Steve Ross expressed his support for his players that knelt, even going up to Thomas and saying, “Let’s get ready to do something about this.”