At an NFL preseason game on August 26, 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remains seated as other players stand to observe the national anthem. This simple action, which Kaepernick makes no attempt to broadcast to the public, gives rise to a controversy that will bring to light the racial tensions within American sports, determine the fate of Kaepernick’s football career and reverberate across the sporting world for years to come.
Born in Wisconsin in 1987 to a white mother and an African American father, Colin Kaepernick was adopted by a white couple and raised in California. Drafted by the 49ers in 2011, Kaepernick became known as one of the best running quarterbacks in the NFL and nearly won the Super Bowl in 2012, scoring two touchdowns as the 49ers lost 34-31. In 2014, he signed a six-year contract extension, but injuries led to uncertainty about his future. Kaepernick was recovering from surgery in the summer of 2016, during which he commented on social media about the police killings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Charles Kinsey and Freddy Gray, and didn’t dress for the 49ers first two preseason games, during which he sat for the national anthem.
When he continued to sit, despite wearing his uniform, for the third preseason game against the Green Bay Packers on August 26, only a single reporter noticed. Asked about it after the game, Kaepernick responded, “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.”
The 49ers released a statement saying that they recognized his right to do as he wished during the anthem, while the NFL stated that it encouraged but did not require its players to stand. A few days later, a conversation with a former NFL player and Green Beret convinced Kaepernick to kneel, rather than sit, out of respect for members of the military. It was this action, taking the knee, that would come to be associated with Kaepernick and with racial justice protests in sports around the world. He knelt before the final preseason game on September 1, joined by his teammate Eric Reid, and by the time the NFL season got underway, a number of players from around the league were doing the same.
For the rest of the season, every gameday began with media speculation about whether certain players would kneel, how their coaches and fans would react and how the protests would affect relationships between players and management. President Barack Obama defended Kaepernick’s “constitutional right to make a statement” while NFL Commissioner Robert Goodell said, “I don’t necessarily agree with what he’s doing.” Donald Trump, then the Republican nominee for president, said that players who knelt should “try another country,” echoing the views of many NFL owners. Trump and other conservatives would continue to criticize Kaepernick for the rest of the season, during which Trump shocked the world by winning the 2016 election on an “America First” platform that vehemently opposed the growing calls for police reform. The 49ers floundered as Kaepernick’s protests continued to polarize Americans, and he decided to leave the team following the season. Despite having significantly better credentials than many other free agent quarterbacks, Kaepernick was not offered another NFL contract. For several years, he continued to train as if he were in the league while attempting to find a new team, eventually filing a grievance alleging that the league’s owners—many of whom were vocally opposed to the protests he began—had blackballed him.
Though he never played again after the 2016-2017 season, Kaepernick has remained one of the most talked-about figures in the world of sports ever since the media first noticed his silent protest. He has continued to express his views on policing, prison abolition and racial justice and encouraged other players to speak out. Following the events of the summer of 2020 and the protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer, players from across American sports and around the world began kneeling before games in solidarity with the oppressed and in recognition of the need for racial justice. Thus, despite an up-and-down career that most now agree was unjustly cut short, Kaepernick is arguably one of the most influential athletes of the 21st century, viewed by many as a martyr who sacrificed his career to assert athletes’ right to speak out on issues of racial justice.