Two years after first taking a knee on the sidelines of a preseason NFL game during the national anthem in an act of protest against police brutality and institutionalized racism, Colin Kaepernick stood on stage at Harvard University to accept a 2018 W. E. B. Du Bois medal.
The award is administered by the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, and is generally considered one of the highest honors “awarded to individuals in the United States and across the globe in recognition of their contributions to African and African American culture and the life of the mind.”
Kaepernick was one of eight recipients at Thursday evening’s ceremony, and the only athlete. Since his peaceful protest began, thousands of athletes at every level of competition across the country have staged similar demonstrations on the sidelines before games, often during the national anthem. In response, antagonists listening to racist dogwhistles have sought to falsely portray the protests as disrespectful towards the military, an argument obscured by their simultaneous support for Donald Trump, a draft dodger who has routinely insulted military veterans, attacked Gold Star families, and lied about fallen heroes and their families.
Kaepernick’s protest began in 2016, and was followed a year later by his ostracism from the National Football League. Despite being just 30 years old, with a long track record of success while the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers — including a run to the Super Bowl in 2012 — Kaepernick remains unsigned by any of the 32 teams in the NFL. His league-wide blacklisting led him to file a lawsuit against the NFL arguing that officials and team owners were colluding to keep him out of a job. That lawsuit is still ongoing, despite numerous attempts by the NFL to have the charges dismissed.
In an otherwise live-streamed broadcast of the ceremony on Thursday evening, Kaepernick’s remarks were blacked out, replaced by a message that read “Due to the current litigation of W. E. B. Du Bois medalist Colin Kaepernick, no press photography or video livestream will be allowed of his remarks.” The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, was on hand to cover his remarks.
Regardless of whether or not he ever plays football professionally again, Kaepernick’s legacy has already been set in stone. He is hardly the first athlete to use the platform that professional sports provides to spread a message of equality and acceptance, but his refusal to cave to external pressure — even if it meant sacrificing the most lucrative and successful years of his career — sets him apart from other notable athlete activists.
Last month, athletics apparel giant Nike made a splash when they announced Kaepernick would be the face of a huge new advertising campaign, celebrating his activism as much as his athleticism. The announcement sparked a flurry of outrage amongst far-right extremists, but normal Americans responded positively to the news. Nike’s stock climbed to record highs within a week of the announcement.
Meanwhile, Kaepernick remains on the sidelines of the NFL, even as several teams find themselves in desperate need of a quarterback who can reliably complete passes to Odell Beckham Jr. in must-win division rivalry games.