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How Colin Kaepernick inspired activism, awareness and Seattle athletes to speak out against racial injustice

ATHLETES, NOW MORE than ever, are demanding to be heard on social-justice issues. Their fans are watching, listening and — yes — engaging in ways never seen, too.

The Backstory: Conversations about race and equality resonate at all levels in sports — not just the big leagues

Many athletes took courageous stances on social causes before our current social-justice movement. Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown were among the most well-known athlete-activists in the 1960s. The most iconic demonstration of athletes protesting came from Tommie Smith and John Carlos during a medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics, and their fist-raising salute for Black Power remains an indelible image of the Civil Rights era. “We were the horticulturists,” Carlos told the Telegraph UK recently. “We planted seeds, and we nourished them and watered them and returned them to Earth. These young athletes making these statements, they are the fruit of our labor.”

Colin Kaepernick was the turning point for this generation of athletes. In 2016, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback began kneeling during the national anthem before NFL games to protest racial injustice, stirring impassioned debate throughout a country deeply divided on social and political issues. Kaepernick’s protests effectively cost him his football career; by 2017, he was out of the league.

Four years later, the effects of Kaepernick’s activism can be put into better context, and the simple conclusion is this: It worked. Kaepernick’s protests not only stoked passion and awareness in the public consciousness; they went beyond that within the Black community. According to a study of political behavior among Black Americans, Kaepernick was “a powerful mobilizing force” who directly inspired nearly one-third of Black people polled to donate to a political cause, attend a protest or boycott the NFL. More than half of respondents said Kaepernick inspired them to vote in a local or national election. That activism reached new heights this week when, for what is believed to be the first time, some professional athletes in the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer refused to play games the same day, Aug. 26, in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Christopher Towler, an assistant professor of political science at Sacramento State who earned his doctorate at the University of Washington, used data from the Black Voter Project to research Kaepernick’s influence and then co-authored a paper titled “Shut Up and Play: Black Athletes, Protest Politics, and Black Political Action,” published in March. “I think one of the most important parts about (the research) is, not only is he motivating people to participate; it’s that he’s working within this larger Black Lives Matter movement, and those who support the movement are really, really paying attention to Kaepernick as a national leader (for the movement),” Towler told me in a recent phone interview.

Across virtually all sports this summer, as professional leagues returned to play in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, more athletes are following Kaepernick’s lead amid the national uproar over racial injustice. The research shows how influential athletes can be. Their growing political influence, Towler said, isn’t strictly limited to the Black community; more white athletes and more white coaches are starting to stand up and speak out about racial issues that the white community has ignored for too long, and Towler recognizes the potential ripple effects those added voices could have on social activism, too.

SEATTLE SPORTS STARS Sue Bird, Megan Rapinoe and Russell Wilson each wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt as they hosted ESPN’s annual awards show, The ESPYS, filmed remotely from their Seattle homes in June. The show’s opening segment took on a somber, serious tone as each athlete spoke about the national movement following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

“For centuries, there have been fights for justice and equality in this country, led by Black people,” Rapinoe, the OL Reign and U.S. soccer star, said during the show. “This movement is no different, but as white people, this is the breaking point. This time, we’ve got to have their backs.” “Trust us: We know that sports are important. It’s why we’re gathered here tonight,” added Bird, the Storm point guard. “But do Black lives matter to you when they’re not throwing touchdowns, grabbing rebounds, serving aces? If that was uncomfortable to hear, good. I used to shy away from moments like this, because it’s convenient to be quiet. To be thought of as safe and polite. Colin Kaepernick never shied away. He knew that discomfort was essential to liberation and that fighting the oppression against Black people is bigger than sports.”

Added Wilson, the Seahawks quarterback: “Our country’s work is not anywhere close to done. We need justice. We need true leadership. We need a change, and we need it now. … As millions of people of all colors protest, I see a world of hurt, pain and despair. But I also see a new generation. A generation that is calling out in desperate need for lasting change.”

OTHER SEAHAWKS have been outspoken on social issues in recent years. Michael Bennett, one of the stars of the Seahawks’ defense during their Super Bowl runs in 2013 and 2014, was one of a handful of NFL players to support Kaepernick and protest during the national anthem. In 2017, Bennett sat on the team bench during the performance of the anthem; before some games, Justin Britt, a white offensive lineman, stood next to Bennett and put his arm on Bennett’s shoulder in a show of solidarity.

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