When 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt down on one knee on September 1, 2016, he created one of the most iconic images of the 21st century. His likeness became a global symbol of resistance and non-violent protest against police brutality against people of color.
The country had seen a series of killings of unarmed Black men that summer, among them Alton Sterling and Philando Castille, and professional athletes were as concerned and outraged as others. WNBA players from three teams wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts despite being fined by the league; Cleveland Browns running back Isaiah Crowell posted an image of a police officer’s throat being slashed, accompanied by the words: “Mood: They give police all types of weapons and they continuously choose to kill us … #weak.”
Both incidents took place that July, as did the killing of five Dallas police officers. They were ambushed by a sniper who had expressed anger over the killing of unarmed Black men. Further fanning the flames of unrest was America’s polarization along political party lines as the general election between Democrat Hillary Clinton and surprise Republican candidate Donald Trump heated up.
Kaepernick’s protest began in August, when he sat on the bench during the National Anthem at each of the 49ers’ first three preseason games. Media took note for the first time on August 26, 2016 at a home game against the Green Bay Packers.
“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 told NFL Network reporter Steve Wyche after the game.. “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.”
The 49ers’ statement the following day read: “The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”
“We recognize the right of any individual to choose to participate or not participate in the national anthem and so does the league,” said coach Chip Kelly. “So, the league’s statement is they encourage them, but it’s not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem. So, it’s his right as a citizen.”
The public’s reaction was sharply divided. Some fans, media members, and public figures felt Kaepernick disrespected the country and its flag. Trump, after winning the presidency, turned up the heat by urging NFL owners to “fire” any player who refused to stand during the anthem.
“He sparked something,” said Antoine Bethea, a 49ers safety in 2016. “A lot of people wanted to sweep the problems he was identifying under the rug, or mask them, so for him to be vulnerable and risk his career to stand up was powerful.Throughout neighborhoods across America, in corporate offices, in sports leagues, everywhere … he sparked conversations that needed to be had.”
A RICH HISTORY OF ATHLETE PROTEST
Kaepernick’s iconic protest is part of a long lineage of athlete activism, including:
1951 – The University of San Francisco’s undefeated football team refused an invitation to play in the Orange Bowl after it was informed its two Black players, Ollie Matson and Burl Toler, would not be allowed to participate.
1961 – Bill Russell and three other Black players on the Boston Celtics boycotted an NBA exhibition game after they were refused service at a Lexington, Kentucky, restaurant.
1966 – World heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army due to his Muslim faith, and as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He was stripped of his boxing title and threatened with imprisonment
1968 – American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos accepted their medals at the Mexico City Olympics, then each raised a black-gloved fist above their bowed heads to protest racial discrimination.
1970 – Curt Flood, a Major League Baseball outfielder for 15 seasons, filed an antitrust suit against the league to dissolve the decades-old reserve clause. He claimed that being owned by a baseball team was similar to “being a slave 100 years ago.” Although he lost the case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972 and never played again, his case opened the door to economic freedom for all future MLB players.
1976 – The “Oscar Robertson Rule” goes into effect after the NBA and Players Association settled their lawsuit thereby eliminating the ‘option’ or ‘reserve’ clause in basic player contracts, paving the way for free agency.
– In a period of relative calm in the ongoing fight for racial reckoning, athletes across sports leveraged their power to build personal wealth and economic might which enabled a new wave of athlete activism.
1996 – Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand during the National Anthem and was suspended without pay for one game by the NBA.
2012 – Miami Heat players _ including Dwyane Wade and LeBron James _ wore hooded sweatshirts before their game and posted a video on social media saying, “I Am Trayvon Martin”. They were protesting the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenage boy who was shot to death in Florida.
2014 – After the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Knox College basketball player Ariyana Smith walked onto her team’s home court in nearby Clayton with her hands raised, then fell to the floor for 4½ minutes, symbolizing the 4½ hours Brown’s body lay in the street after he was killed.
– Before their home game against the Oakland Raiders, St. Louis Rams players Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt, Jared Cook, Chris Givens and Stedman Bailey jogged onto the field with their hands up to mimic the “don’t shoot” gesture for Michael Brown, who had been shot and killed by St. Louis police. The St. Louis Police Department demanded that the NFL discipline the players.
2014 – Cleveland Cavaliers teammates LeBron James and Kyrie Irving were among several NBA players who wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts before their games, a reference to the last words of Eric Garner, who died in the custody of New York City police officers that summer4.
2014 – During player introductions before a game against the Bengals, Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a T-shirt that read “JUSTICE FOR TAMIR RICE (and) JOHN CRAWFORD” on the front, and “THE REAL BATTLE OF OHIO” on the back. Rice, just 12 years old, and Crawford had recently been shot and killed by local police. The Cleveland Police Union requested an apology from the team.
2015 – New York Knicks star Carmelo Anthony marched with demonstrators in his hometown of Baltimore to protest the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered fatal spinal injuries while in police custody 11 days earlier.
2014 – Los Angeles Clippers players wear their warm-ups inside out in reaction to then-team owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments.
2016 – Members of the Minnesota Lynx, New York Liberty and Phoenix Mercury began wearing “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts to WNBA games to protest recent police shootings. Police unions took offense, and the league fined both the teams and the players. Liberty center Tina Charles took to Twitter to say she refused “to be silent,” prompting WNBA president Lisa Borders to rescind the fines and begin a dialogue with the players.“While we expect players to comply with league rules and uniform guidelines,” Borders said, “we also understand their desire to use their platforms to address important social issues.”
PROTESTS FOLLOWING COLIN KAEPERNICK
Kapaernick, whose decision to kneel rather than sit during the anthem stemmed from a meeting with Nate Boyer, a former Army Green Beret who suggested kneeling would be more respectful, inspired civil protests at all levels of athletic events, from high school to professional, and in both male and female sports.
In September 2016, one of the first athletes to take a knee after Kaepernick was Rodney Axon, Jr., a football player at Brunswick (Ohio) High School. Numerous high school teams followed Axum’s lead, including Auburn High School in Rockford, Illinois, Woodrow Wilson High in Camden, New Jersey, and Lincoln Southeast in Nebraska, among many others.
A few days after Axon’s protest, several NFL teams and individual players marked the start of the season by joining Kaepernick in protest, notably the Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs.
In September, soccer star Megan Rapinoe garnered national attention by kneeling during the national anthem at an international match to show solidarity with Kaepernick. In 2022 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and thanked the former 49ers quarterback for being “so brave and giving us all a path to use our voices and to step outside of ourselves.” (SF Chron, July 3, 2022, Killion)
After some criticism of Kaepernick’s action in conservative media, Tony Dungy, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a former Indianapolis Colts head coach and ex-49ers player, vocalized the feeling of many of the athletes. During an appearance on “Fox & Friends” in 2018 he said, “These guys are not unpatriotic. They’re not standing against our country. They’re kneeling against what’s wrong in the country.”
After the 2017 season, Kaepernick became a free agent but was not signed by any NFL teams. He filed a grievance against the NFL in November 2017 accusing the league’s 32 teams of colluding to keep him out of the league. He reached a settlement with the NFL in 2019. Kaepernick’s teammate Eric Reid also reached a collusion settlement with the NFL after he went unsigned following the 2019 season.
Sources and further reading:
Interview With Ariyana Smith: The First Athlete Activist of #BlackLivesMatter. David Zirin. The Nation. 19 December 2014.
Colin Kaepernick explains why he sat during national anthem. Steve Wyche. NFL Media. 27 August 2016.
Athletes and activism: The long, defiant history of sports protests. Steve Wulf. The Undefeated. 30 January 2019.
‘I wanted to see what it meant to protest.” Michelle Smith. ESPNW. 15 December 2014