The untold story of the movement launched when Kaepernick took a knee

What we learned from tracking protests for more than a year.

Art by Diana Ofosu
Art by Diana Ofosu

On August 14, 2016, before the San Francisco 49ers’ first preseason game of the season kicked off, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the national anthem. It took two more preseason games for anyone to even notice. But when reporters finally spotted Kaepernick on the bench during the Star Spangled Banner on August 26, he got a chance to explain.

“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.”

With that, a new era of athlete activism was launched — and since that press conference, more than 3,500 people have joined Kaepernick’s movement. 

According to data tracked by ThinkProgress over the past 13 months, there have been more than 200 protests during the national anthem at sporting events since Kaepernick’s initial protest. This activism has spanned 41 states (including Washington, D.C.) and four countries. 

You can find information on this protest activity in ThinkProgress’ interactive database, and you can contact us here if you think we’re missing an event.



From cheerleaders at Ivy League universities to national anthem singers at NBA and NFL games, from referees of high-school football games in North Carolina to college gymnasts, from Olympic champion swimmers to eight-year-old football players, Kaepernick’s stand has resonated with people from all sides of the sporting landscape.

The movement has received increased attention over the past few days, after President Donald Trump went on an unhinged rant at a rally during which he referred to any NFL player who protested during the anthem as a “son of a bitch” who should be fired. Hundreds more NFL players joined in on the protests last weekend.

But it’s important to remember that for many of the people who are demonstrating during the national anthem, this didn’t start with Trump. For them, this act of protest is about confronting the injustices they deal with on a day in, day out basis.



While the various protests by NFL and NBA players will likely garner the most mainstream media attention, this movement is not limited to professional athletes. ThinkProgress’s database tracks more than 980 people protesting during the national anthem at the elementary, middle, and high school level — demonstrations that are often left out of the national headlines. 

Rodney Axson of Brunswick High School became the first known high-school athlete to join in the protests on September 2, 2016, when he took a knee during the national anthem after he heard his teammates use the “N-word” to describe players on the other team. After he knelt, he was inundated with racist threats in person and via social media, including one Snapchat that said, “Let’s Lynch Ni—ers.” Mason Kaawa-Loa, a senior at Kealakehe High in Kailau-Kona, Hawaii was inspired by Kaepernick to take a knee before football games to protest the injustices Native Hawaiian people experience in the United States. Several members of the girls’ volleyball team at DeSoto High School in Texas took a knee during the national anthem because “the next black man shot could be their dad, brother or boyfriend.”

We want our readers to know about Axson and Kaawa-Loa. We also want you to know about the Beaumont Bulls, a prep team of 11- and-12 year olds in Texas who had their season canceled due to the death threats they received after they took a knee during the anthem. We want you to know that after a few football players and cheerleaders knelt at Bonnabel High School in Louisiana, several members of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office refused to work voluntary security shifts at future games. And we hope you remember the middle school football coach who was forced to take players who wanted to kneel in protest behind the bleachers while the anthem was played so their game would not be canceled.



As with any movement that starts small and spreads wide, protests during the national anthem have taken different forms across the country. Some people are choosing to remain seated; others are taking a knee; others are raising a fist or a sign with a Black Lives Matter slogan; others are wearing T-shirts with messages in solidarity with Kaepernick; others are locking arms with their teammates while remaining standing. For our tracking purposes, we included everything — any sign of apparent protest during the anthem, whatever the style.

No matter the form, the data is clear about one thing: The protests are spreading, and the movement is growing. And this is only the beginning.

“We’re not going to fix this tomorrow. We’re not going to fix this today,” Kelsey Bone, the first WNBA player to take a knee last September, told reporters. “We might not be the ones who benefit from this. But maybe our kids will, maybe our grandkids will.”

Los Angeles Rams punter Johnny Hekker (6) puts his arm around defensive end Robert Quinn (94), who raises his fist during the national anthem before an NFL football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Rams in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Los Angeles Rams punter Johnny Hekker (6) puts his arm around defensive end Robert Quinn (94), who raises his fist during the national anthem before an NFL football game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Rams in Santa Clara, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

All art by Diana Ofosu. Adam Peck, Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani, Aysha Khan, Rebekah Entralgo, and Ryan Koronowski contributed research assistance to this project.