Colin Kaepernick has become larger than football since he refused to stand two years ago as the National Anthem played before NFL games.
An icon in the fight against police brutality and racial injustice, Kaepernick, who hasn’t played in the league since the 2016 season, now stars in Nike’s new ad campaign. The spot features a black and white close-up of his face with the caption: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
What was Kaepernick protesting in the first place?
As a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick sparked controversy when he sat, then knelt, during the National Anthem before several 2016 NFL preseason and regular-season games. He said he did so to protest police shootings of African-American men and other social injustices faced by black people in the United States.“To me, this is something that has to change,” Kaepernick said in an August 2016 interview. “And when there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”
Kaepernick also said he could not “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
After first, Kaepernick sat during the anthem. Later, he opted instead to kneel “to show more respect for men and women who fight for the country.” The change came at the suggestion of former NFL player and Green Beret Nate Boyer.
Who else participated?
Kaepernick’s protest inspired other players. His teammate, Eric Reid, soon knelt beside him. Other teammates joined, including Antoine Bethea, Eli Harold, Jaquiski Tartt and Rashard Robinson.Players who sat or knelt during the 2016 season included: Jeremy Lane of the Seattle Seahawks, Brandon Marshall of the Denver Broncos and the Miami Dolphins’ Arian Foster, Michael Thomas, Kenny Stills and Jelani Jenkins. Other players, including the Philadelphia Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins, raised fists.
When the 2017 season rolled around, more players joined the protest.
Michael Bennett, then a defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks, told CNN last August he couldn’t stand for the National Anthem until he saw equality and freedom.
Twelve members of the Cleveland Browns took a knee last August in their preseason game against the New York Giants. Other teammates huddled around the group in support.
Browns tight end Seth DeValve was identified as the first white NFL player to kneel. DeValve, whose wife is African-American, said he didn’t realize he was the first white player to do so.
“I, myself, will be raising children who don’t look like me,” DeValve said. “I want to do my part, as well, to do everything I can to raise them in a better environment (than) we have right now. I wanted to take that opportunity with my teammates to pray for our country and also to draw attention to the fact that we have work to do. That’s why I did what I did.”How did the NFL respond?
After Kaepernick sat for the first time, his team and the NFL released statements saying players were encouraged, but not required, to stand for the anthem, which is played before every professional sporting event in the country.
“The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony,” the 49ers said in a statement at the time. “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.”
But things changed in 2017, as Kaepernick became a free agent. No team offered him a contract, and that October, he filed a grievance against the league, accusing team owners of colluding to keep him from being signed.
Athletes who protest peacefully “should not be punished,” Kaepernick’s attorney said in a statement announcing the grievance.
Still, players continued to kneel. And public backlash mounted until team owners in May declared that all team personnel on the field during the anthem must “stand and show respect for the flag and the Anthem.”Under the policy, players could stay in the locker room during the anthem – but if any team personnel on the field knelt, the team would be fined. Teams then could decide whether and how to punish offending staff.
That didn’t sit well with players. Their union in July filed a grievance, arguing the new policy infringed upon player rights and was enacted without consulting the union.
A week later, NFL officials said they would put the policy on hold so they could discuss a solution with the players association.