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Colin Kaepernick: Pariah Or The Evolution Of The American Athlete?




During the Civil Rights Movement, athletes in the 1960’s used their celebrity and status to speak out on the injustices they were seeing in America at the time. Names like Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul- Jabbar and Jim Brown made sure to let the press know that they were aware of what was going on around them. After the Civil Rights fight and into the 1970’s and 1980’s, athletes being vocal about social issues stopped and even to this day, American athletes have been mostly quiet on the issues affecting America.

When Travon Martin was shot and killed in Florida in 2012, LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and their Miami Heat teammates took to social media to show their support for the Martin family. They all were wearing hoodies, the item of clothing that Martin was wearing when he was shot. After that however it was business as usual and it seemed that sporadic social media protests would be the extent of athletes speaking out. After a rash of police shootings and the brutal killings of police officers this year, players like James and Carmelo Anthony stood up during The ESPYS in July to express their feelings and Anthony even organized a meeting with the Team USA men’s and women’s basketball teams, law enforcement and community organizing groups to discuss how to improve relations.

On August 26 before a preseason against the Green Bay Packers, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the playing of the nation anthem. When asked about why he did not stand up, his response to NFL Media was blunt and to the point.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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.”

“This is not something that I am going to run by anybody, I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”

Former NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem in 1996, stating that the United States had a long history of tyranny. The former Chris Jackson, who converted to Islam before the incident, was suspended by the NBA for one game. Eventually a compromise was reached between the league and Abdul-Rauf where Abdul-Rauf would stand silently in prayer during the anthem.

Similar to Abdul-Rauf, Kaepernick changed his original decree that he would continue not standing as he knelt during the national anthem before last Thursday’s game against the San Diego Chargers. This story is going on two weeks and everyone, from ESPN personalities to political pundits, has an opinion on Colin Kaepernick with some going as far as to tell Kaepernick to leave the country if he has such a problem with it. There is a segment of the public however that believes Kaepernick may have actually started useful dialogue that others have yet to start. This is from Bill Simmons during his September 1st podcast:

“We saw it at the ESPY’s with these guys (Anthony, Wade, James and Chris Paul) when they got up on stage and respect to them for what they did. They didn’t really say anything. They came out, they said some stuff. I thought it took courage on their part to even throw their hats in the ring. Nothing really changed, the debate kind of came and went. It was like ‘Oh look at what these guys did’ and then it kind of came and went. Carmelo, his heart is in the right place, he really seems to be pushing towards something but hasn’t really figured out how to get there. In this one simple thing that Kaepernick did, it kind of launched the debate and the discussion that all of these guys wanted. It’s gone in all of these different directions but it’s weird that Kaepernick was the one that really ignited it. I would have assumed it would have been Carmelo.”

The debate isn’t whether Kaepernick’s opinions are right or wrong. This whole thing began with him not standing up during the national anthem. In his head, Kaepernick probably thought that doing something drastic would be the only way for him to get his point across to a national audience. His actions are similar to how Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their right fist to show support for the Civil Rights and anti-Apartheid movements in the United States and South Africa at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

Kaepernick is now the 49ers backup quarterback behind Blaine Gabbert, a quarterback with a career record of 8-27 in his five-year NFL career. No one knows whether Kaepernick’s protest played a part in his new backup role but it put the 49ers in a losing situation. They couldn’t cut him without everyone thinking it was over the national anthem protest. So we now have a quarterback whose career is fading and who is also a strong social advocate on a team that may or may not want him. What we also have is a turning point for social activism in sports, where athletes will be more willing to speak out on issues affecting them and those around them.

It has started with U.S. Women’s soccer player Megan Rapinoe kneeling during the national anthem before her NWSL game over the weekend. She acknowledged it as a nod to Kaepernick and as her way to “keep the conversation going”. Kaepernick’s teammate Eric Reid knelt next to him during the anthem last week and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane sat during the anthem before Seattle’s final preseason game. Kaepernick is even influencing his young fans as a teacher reported that six 5th grade students kneeled during the school’s daily Pledge of Allegiance activity.

Colin Kaepernick, whether he meant to or not, created a new athlete. An athlete where they are more in tune with what is going on in their community and around the world. An athlete who doesn’t care whether their Nike endorsement deal is taken away because of what they have to say about life in America, good or bad. An athlete that is more willing to go the extra mile, not only on the field but off the field as well. It doesn’t matter the nationality of the athlete, the door has been opened and more athletes will be walking through that door expressing their thoughts and views. Here’s hoping that it will begin to enact change in the world of sports and in the way athletes look at their role in an ever-changing world, as opposed to just building their individual brands and their bank accounts.


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Kahlil Thomas

Kahlil is the College Sports Editor for as well as a columnist, hosting the Bump 'N Run column once per week. He also co-hosts a weekly basketball podcast, The Box Out, every Thursday evening with fellow writer Jason Cordner.
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