Google Colin Kaepernick. There he is, the ‘American activist’.
Check out Wikipedia. Oh yes, that’s right… ‘an American civil rights activist and football quarterback’.
A civil rights activist first, an NFL star with six years’ experience and two playoff runs under his belt very definitely second. His chosen career path very much an afterthought. All because he knelt down when a song was playing.
Yes, it was more than just a random song, it was the national anthem. And yes, the custom is that one should stand and observe the flag at such moments. But who was standing up for Colin Kaepernick if he didn’t stand up for himself? Who was going to raise the question of the mistreatment of black people in America if a black person in America didn’t do it himself?
The backlash on Kaepernick was extraordinary at the time, and it has only got worse in many ways. While the barrage of social media bile slowed, the NFL did a cracking job of taking on the baton of hatred.
Since the end of the 2016 season in which Kaepernick made global headlines with his “disrespect of the flag”, he has played a grand total of zero games. The San Francisco 49ers released him, and the rest of the game rejected him. Nobody wanted to touch him, a quarterback with a career pass completion rate of 60% - comparable with the likes of Cam Newton and Ryan Fitzpatrick, both of whom have been able to get regular work over the last five years.
Kaepernick has, instead, been left begging for a role. In late 2017 he filed a grievance against the league, claiming that collusion was in play in him being frozen out, and 18 months later the two parties reached a confidential settlement. Similar happened with former teammate Eric Reid, who joined Colin in taking a knee back in ’16. Even after that, though, when the NFL set up a private workout for Kaepernick in Atlanta with every one of the 32 teams invited, the whole thing pretty much collapsed over misgivings regarding the agreement that it would take place behind closed doors. All the while, quarterbacks of similar standing have been signed and re-signed.
Now, finally, Kaepernick has been given a chance. On Wednesday he worked out with the Las Vegas Raiders, almost six years on from being exiled by the Niners and five years since the Seattle Seahawks met up with him but ultimately decided not to sign a man who at that time was being openly and brazenly castigated by the President of the United States.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, say: ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired!’” hollered Donald Trump at a 2017 Republican rally. Yes, the same Donald Trump who has been known to publicly gyrate against the star-spangled banner, speaking about the ‘son of a bitch’ who just wanted to give a voice to poor black communities being treated horrifically by fellow citizens and authority figures alike simply because of the colour of their skin.
See, it was never about the flag. If those who labelled Kaepernick “disrespectful to the flag” actually cared about the symbol it carries, they would have lambasted Trump for some of his behaviour. They would have defended the right of an American, born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and raised in California, to speak up for a huge proportion of his compatriots.
What it was really about was Kaepernick’s refusal to be subservient. NFL players, 58% of whom in 2021 were black or African American according to statista.com, are told week after week to be respectful of owners, authority figures and others in positions of power, the majority of whom are white.
When Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones suspected that some of his players might be open to taking a knee in 2017, he basically ordered the whole staff to take a knee together in a line prior to the national anthem being played and then stand to observe the flag once the song was played. It was a photo opportunity rather than a compromise. The bottom line was that he wanted no black player in a Cowboys uniform kneeling during the anthem.
But that’s the way of things. Players are ordered to stand for the anthem, face the flag and play nice, as though their communities are not systematically steamrolled into the ground by the American machine that rolls on regardless.
Kaepernick wanted people to know that he didn’t think it was ok that Philando Castile had been shot and killed by police after a random traffic stop less than two months before he first decided to kneel for the anthem. He had seen the stories of Alton Sterling, Joseph Mann, Paul O’Neal, Korryn Gaines and Jamarion Robinson over a similar time frame, and then there were the Milwaukee riots sparked by the killing of Sylville Smith by a police officer.
He was aware of what was happening to countless black Americans and wanted the world to know he was on their side. How did that deserve a five-year exile from his chosen profession?
Kaepernick has led the cause well in the years which have followed, never once backing down from his beliefs. If that makes him a civil rights activist, then so be it. But he has always wanted to be a footballer too, and at the age of 34 he might finally get a chance to do what he truly loves again.
Colin Kaepernick, the footballer, could be about to make his long-awaited comeback. And the United States of America would be all the better for it.