The day was Aug. 26, 2016 – the third match of the preseason between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers was about to take place at Levi’s Stadium, the home of the 49ers. During the performance of the national anthem of the United States of America the whole crowd stood up. In the meantime, however, one person did not. With his simple and yet meaningful gesture of remaining seated, Colin Kaepernick caused a riptide throughout the political and American football worlds.
Collin Kaepernick, the now former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, explained his actions briefly in the post-game interview.
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. 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," stated Kaepernick.
Kaepernick's conduct initially occured during the first two preseason games in 2016. However, due to him not playing at the time his actions did not receive much attention. Then, the turning point proved to be exactly that third game. On Sept. 1, during the final preseason game for the San Francisco 49ers, the quarterback adopted a permanent change to his act of protest. Kaepernick took a knee while the national anthem was playing. He made a slight adjustment to his stand that would be later followed by fellow footballers, people across other departments in the National Football League (NFL), and eventually players from other sports. On that day Eric Reid, a strong safety for the 49ers, joined him. For the first time, Kaepernick was not alone in his protest.
The entire team had met with Nate Boyer, former Green Beret and long snapper in the NFL, and had a discussion with him which led to the change.
"We were talking to [Boyer] about how can we get the message back on track and not take away from the military, not take away from fighting for our country, but keep the focus on what the issues really are. And as we talked about it, we came up with taking a knee. Because there are issues that still need to be addressed and it was also a way to show more respect to the men and women who fight for this country," Kaepernick further elaborated.
The protest quickly gained supporters during the rest of the preseason games and the official games that followed. The first person from another team who joined the San Francisco 49ers was the Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane.
"I wasn't trying to say anything, just standing behind Kaepernick," explained Lane after the game.
The actions of the NFL players met with response in other sports leagues. Megan Rapinoe took a knee during the national anthem as a sign of support towards Kaepernick and the cause before the game from the National Women Soccer League between the Seattle Reign and the Chicago Red Stars. The Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch, who had a history of sitting on the bench during the performance of the national anthem back in the day when he was a player of the Seattle Seahawks, now continued to do so. The timing of Kaepernick’s protest, however, was during the heated political climate in the fall of 2016 and really brought the matter to the public interest. The ongoing issue is not the first instance of tension residing in football, politics, and protesting. Football players have stood united in addressing racial injustice in the past as well. Back in 1965, the NFL was supposed to have an All-Star Game in New Orleans. It was boycotted by players and eventually moved to Houston due to the extreme racism and intimidation with which the African-American players were received at the airport in New Orleans.
During the 2014 season, several St. Louis Rams players went out on the field with a “hands up, don’t shoot” posture to show their solidarity with the protests in Ferguson, MO, after the shooting of Michael Brown.
Overall, the NFL players had the support of the league. Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner said:
“I support our players speaking out on issues they think need to be changed in our society. We don’t live in a perfect society. Our players have strong views about things so I support our players speaking out about that.” “We recognize and respect Kap’s decision and his constitutional rights to do what he’s doing and it sounds like it’s been a positive change. There’s been a lot of positive things that have come out of it,” Chip Kelly, the San Francisco 49ers head coach, added.
In the past few weeks, the protest became a matter of political debate. During a rally in Alabama the president of the United States of America Donald Trump expressed himself in his typical manner that he would not tolerate that behavior of the players. In response, a number of star athletes from the National Basketball Association such as Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, and Stephen Curry showed their support to Kaepernick and criticized the president for his statement. Earlier this year, Donald Trump clashed yet again with the National Basketball Association which ended with him withdrawing the invitation of the Golden State Warriors to the White House. Seeing the magnitude that the issue is beginning to have, many people commented that the president should rather concentrate on other more critical matters, such as the aftermath of the hurricanes that hit the country and the tense relations with North Korea, instead of dividing Americans with such statements during his public speeches. In regard to NFL, Trump is no stranger of going head to head with the league. To elaborate, he was one of the founders of the United States Football League which competed with the NFL. However, the USFL was a futile endeavour and it existed for only four years, between 1982 and 1986. Back in 2014 Trump tried to become a part of the NFL by purchasing the Buffalo Bills but his attempt was not successful. Since then he has been critical of the league and its players saying that the games lack interesting moments, the TV ratings are low, and the players are no longer tough. Going back to the issue with refusing to stand for the country's national anthem, Kaepernick has a justification for his actions. He stands behind a cause that he believes in and has brought it to the public eye to be discussed more than ever before. Now, given the vast coverage the issue reached, it cannot be denied that there is a strong tendency of unification in sports. Unintentionally Trump’s criticism brought players in the NFL much closer together than they have ever been. The concept of team ethic is powerful in every sport. This is particularly important in American football. Therefore, the President's actions inspired footballers, coaches, staff members, and owners to stand together and oppose his comments. He has given them a free platform to express their thoughts. Sometimes athletes rise above the innate human ego and above all their differences, and the colours they wear no longer seem to matter. The unanimity the sports world demonstrates may serve as an example in times when leaders' virtues seem to be fading.
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