Kaepernick, Advocacy, and Leadership

I feel like I should have written about this when it began, and I should have been writing about it every week since.  I love football.  I love the First Amendment.  I love that a pro football player is taking advantage of his First Amendment rights to advocate for people who do not have a voice.  Kaepernick’s silent protest and the ensuing media storm have brought together all of these elements that are dear to me.

In case you are just waking from a coma and/or have not watched the news, last month 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the pre-game national anthem, instead taking a knee in a silent protest, stating after the game:

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 Media in an exclusive interview 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.

Following the game, the 49ers chose not to denounce Kaepernick or punish him for his actions, instead releasing a statement saying:

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.

Kaepernick has continued his silent protests, continuing to kneel during the national anthem at Sunday’s game in Charlotte, N.C. where he is now joined by several other players.

Leadership is easy.  All you have to do is stand up when others are afraid to stand.  Or take a knee when everyone around you stands in blind obedience and blind acceptance of what is expected of them.  Or speak out about injustice while others remain silent.  If you do any of these things with conviction and if you do not back down, people will follow and, if the cause is just and there is a need for it, you may begin a movement and you may be a catalyst for change.

Leadership is hard.  As soon as you stand up, or take a knee, or speak out, you will be noticed not only by like-minded people who care, but also by the critics who seek to tear down anyone who strays from the herd.  You will be criticized, ostracized, threatened, and attacked by those who do not share your convictions.  You may lose your livelihood, friends, or reputation.  Everyone will not understand your message.  Everyone who understands the message will not care or agree.  Once you are in the spotlight, any mis-step that you make reflects not only on you but also on the cause.  Since the beginning of Kaepernick’s odyssey he has been relentlessly attacked by critics who disagree with the message, critics who disagree with the method, or critics who just disagree to disagree:

  • He has been attacked because he’s not a good enough football player;
  • He has been attacked because he’s not black enough to carry the message;
  • He has been attacked because he has too much money;
  • His protest has been criticized as a fad;
  • A Fox News commentator dubbed him “Martin Luther Cornrow;”
  • He has been attacked for wearing anti-police socks during training (another exercise of his First Amendment rights); and
  • Yesterday a N.Y. state representative mocked Kaepernick on Twitter after the arrest of a bombing suspect in New York.

Despite the scathing criticism, Kaepernick’s protests have so far been a smashing success in terms of bringing attention to the problem of police violence against people of color:

  • He has undeniably gotten the attention of the media, sports fans, and team owners and kept alive the nation’s conversation about race and police violence;
  • He has inspired football players and other athletes to speak out about race and police violence;
  • The 49ers announced that they would donate $1 million to “the cause of improving racial and economic inequality and fostering communication and collaboration between law enforcement and the communities they serve here in the Bay Area;”
  • Kaepernick has said that he will donate $1 million of his own money to charities that have the same goals;
  • 49er Eric Reid joined Kaepernick in his protests, taking a knee when the anthem was played;
  • At Sunday’s game in Charlotte, N.C., four more 49ers joined the protest, raising their fists in the air as the anthem was played;
  • On opening day in the NFL, a Kansas City Chiefs cornerback raised a black gloved fist during the anthem as his teammates linked arms;
  • On the same day, four Miami Dolphins took a knee with hands on their hearts as the anthem played;
  • Several teams, including the Chiefs and Seahawks, linked arms during the Anthem;
  • A Broncos linebacker took a knee during the Anthem as well;
  • Other athletes have been inspired to join the protest and/or show their support for Kaepernick, including a U.S. soccer player;
  • An L.A. Rams defensive end took a knee during the anthem yesterday as well.

Sometimes it only takes one person to step away from the flock and speak out, or take a knee in Kaepernick’s case, to give others the courage to speak up about the injustices that they see.  Here’s to hoping that this does not fade into obscurity but rather marks the beginning of a movement that can make a real difference in how our nation views social justice.


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