Colin Kaepernick and Protest As a Leap of Faith

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Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

For more than a month now, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been a distraction from, and for, the game of football. For the first three weeks of the preseason, he sat in protest during the national anthem, and for the fourth, he knelt, alongside teammate Eric Reid. Similar silent protests began to spread throughout the NFL, becoming the primary story of the first week of the regular season — even on a Sunday that fell on the 15th anniversary of September 11.

Almost as if it were scripted for dramatic effect, the 49ers had the final game of the week, the second game on Monday Night Football. All eyes were on the sidelines to see what would happen. How would this distraction manifest itself during the first real game, a home game, with the whole nation watching? Again, Kaepernick (this time in cornrows instead of an Afro) and Reid knelt during the anthem. ESPN’s cameras lingered on them as the anthem played. But now there were other 49ers who raised their fists. Two members of the opposing team, the Los Angeles Rams, followed suit — both black, as all of the NFL protesters have been — with their fists in the air.

Kaepernick’s purpose has been clear from the jump: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said. “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.”

A week or so ago, I was discussing Kaepernick’s protest with a friend. At the time, the backlash was overwhelming, and it hadn’t accomplished much. I admitted a small amount of skepticism to my friend, while still being impressed with Kaepernick’s stance. My skepticism concerned social activism that could also be explained as an attempt to seek media attention and, for a player whose stock has fallen a lot in the past four years, reclaim some relevance. My friend acknowledged my doubts but made a wise observation: “The other side is that he has even less leverage in his present position,” he said. “They can push him out and it’s a wrap.”

For proof of what my friend said, you only have to look at the career of the great NBA point guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, whom Phil Jackson has described as the 1990s version of Steph Curry. After a reporter noticed he wasn’t standing during the national anthem, the soft-spoken scorer was vilified and painted as a distraction. He received death threats, and within two years — still with the skills of an NBA starter — he was out of the league. His silent protest was meant to bring attention to the fact that the flag was a “symbol of tyranny,” not representative of the values of his Islamic faith. In this, Abdul-Rauf doubled down on being a Muslim, in a Christian country, and suffered the consequences. Some saw his actions as entitled, as selfish, as righteous, but truly all he was doing was expressing what he believed in, even if that came at a considerable risk.

It’s a potent reminder that what Kaepernick and others are doing is not just a sports issue, not just a free-speech issue, and not even just a race issue. This is about risk: that first bold statement, that first leap of faith into the intimidating world of dissent. It’s about doubling down on being a minority in white spaces, with an understanding that your place in said space will never be the same. It’s a harsh reminder that those who now publicly distrust you genuinely thought they were doing you a favor by accepting you in the first place.

What people have been doing on the field during the national anthem is worth paying close attention to.

After Kaepernick had been protesting for four weeks, Brandon Marshall of the Denver Broncos took a knee during the national anthem this past Thursday. Following the game, he lost one of his endorsements, and currently a video is circulating of someone burning his jersey outside the team’s facility. The mayor of DuPont, Washington, canceled a rally in honor of the Seahawks after receiver Doug Baldwin announced that the team would be making some form of on-field statement prior to the season opener. As the game approached, however, this went from a potential protest to a signal boost of unity. Baldwin, who emerged as an unofficial team leader, quoted Dr. King in a tweet and then said in a video, “We are a team comprised of individuals with diverse backgrounds, and as a team we have decided to stand and interlock arms in unity. We honor those who have fought for the freedom we cherish, and we stand to ensure the riches of freedom and the security of justice for all people. Progress can and will be made only if we stand together.” The Seahawks stood with linked arms during the anthem. The Kansas City Chiefs did the same, but Marcus Peters raised a fist under a black glove in the air, an apparent nod to Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who did the same at the 1968 Olympics. After the game, he said he supported Kaepernick. Three players on the Tennessee Titans also raised their fists during the anthem before their game against the Minnesota Vikings. The entire Miami Dolphins team stood for the 9/11 tribute, but four players, including star running back Arian Foster, knelt during the anthem. One of the players that took a knee, Kenny Stills, missed a wide-open catch during the game, which prompted Miami Marlins outfielder Christian Yelich to tweet the video of the missed catch, with the caption: “too worried about kneeling during the anthem.” Sunday evening was capped with the New England Patriots, with two of the players raising a fist during the anthem.

But equally telling have been the responses. There is a little bit of everything: the thoughtful, the nuanced, the conspiratorial, the racist, the inspiring, and the disappointing.

First, there was the flurry of players who took to Twitter to describe Kaepernick’s actions as either unpatriotic or disrespectful to veterans. There was the wave of former athletes who took it as an affront, with one former Major League player telling him to get out of the country if he didn’t like it here (a sentiment echoed by Donald Trump about all of the protesters on Monday morning). Additionally, there were NFL executives who called him a traitor; one even compared him to Rae Carruth, a former wide receiver who plotted to kill his wife. You also had the group of athletes attempting to be neutral, but ultimately distancing themselves from Kaepernick — agreeing with Kaepernick’s desire to see change, but disagreeing with his method. The most notable early member of this group was fellow quarterback Cam Newton.

On the other side, you had the president of the United States supporting Kaepernick’s right to protest. Steph Curry became the first true sports superstar to support Kaepernick, saying, “I applaud him for taking a stand and hopefully the conversation is about what his message was and not ‘is he going to stand or is he going to sit for the national anthem’ or whoever it is.” Days later, Curry’s teammates Kevin Durant and Draymond Green also backed Kaepernick. There was also Megan Rapinoe, one of America’s great soccer players, who chose to kneel in solidarity with Kaepernick before one of her team’s matches. Her rationale:

“Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties. It was something small that I could do and something that I plan to keep doing in the future and hopefully spark some meaningful conversation around it. It’s important to have white people stand in support of people of color on this. We don’t need to be the leading voice, of course, but standing in support of them is something that’s really powerful.”

But during her next match, the opposing Washington Spirit circumvented her wishes to protest by playing the anthem before the teams even made it to the field. In a press release, the Spirit said that “to willingly allow anyone to hijack this tradition that means so much to millions of Americans and so many of our own fans for any cause would effectively be just as disrespectful as doing it ourselves.”

There was also a somewhat surprising group that came down hard on Kaepernick: former black athletes, especially ones who now work in the country club that is the sports-television commentating universe. Former Patriots safety turned NBC analyst Rodney Harrison said Kaepernick wasn’t black. Then there was Shaquille O’Neal, who questioned the 49ers quarterback’s motives during a segment on Fox News:

“His comments were, there’s injustices. There’s always been injustices. Me personally, I would probably go about it a different way. My question is: What happened last year? How come you didn’t decide to do this last year, or the year before that, or the year before that?”

In the eyes of many sports talking heads Monday morning, the big winner was the Seahawks. ESPN’s Adam Schefter stated, “I love what the Seahawks did, without being disruptive.” Former NFL safety Louis Riddick said, “I like what Seattle did, the team approach.” Former coach Herman Edwards said, “The protest is diluting the message,” believing that the message was becoming secondary to the action.

It’s worth looking again at what the Seattle Seahawks did. This is a team, full of black stars, in a predominantly white market. At first they appeared to be primed for a radical statement of solidarity with Kaepernick, but eventually took a more moderate route. It could be seen as a way of distancing yourself from the Kaepernicks of the world and saying that nothing is more important than the football game and making people feel good. It’s the type of action that appeals to people who quote Dr. King when it is convenient, when it helps validate whatever they’re doing in that moment. As Kara Brown said about her hometown team at Jezebel: We were “essentially ‘all lives matter-ed’” by the Seahawks.

Looking at all of it, you really begin to see how difficult a decision it is. It’s the danger of siding with things perceived as radical, as uncontrollable. Once you’ve gotten to the rare place where, as a minority, you are well liked by white America, it’s difficult to give that up. One of the primary misnomers of this protest (and many others) is this idea that anyone is eager to be a villain. Black people don’t like being hated by white people, and they really don’t like being abandoned or discounted by other black people. Black people don’t like being called un-American. Black people prefer not to put their money in jeopardy. None of this makes for an easier life.

But life shouldn’t be easy. And the first full week of the regular season has become a validation of what Kaepernick started. It’s hard to deny that San Francisco’s backup quarterback has infected the league with consciousness. And not simply with newfound beliefs, but an understanding that expressing those beliefs is sometimes more important than keeping people comfortable. Still, even with the support of both colleagues and segments of the public, there is the realization that choosing this route will probably make your life much harder. For some, that will be temporary, while for others it will be indefinite.

There’s a Chappelle’s Show recurring segment, “When Keepin It Real Goes Wrong.” In one of the sketches, there is a young, successful, highly credentialed black businessman who, after a lifetime of seamless assimilation, finally snaps on one of his white co-workers, after what he perceives as an insensitive remark. Mid-tantrum, his co-worker says, “This isn’t the Vernon I know.” Vernon lost his job that day, the skit ending with Vernon employed at a gas station cleaning windshields. It’s both comic hyperbole and a very real truth, illustrative of what happens when a person of color bucks the system.

There’s a reason this skit has stayed in the front of my mind for more than a decade and pops up whenever I am tempted to say or do something that might elicit a response of “That’s not the Rembert I know.” These are crossroads moments — you don’t ever really know how a decision will end for you.

But, for a similar reason, the documentary O.J.: Made in America will also stay with me. Because it’s the other side of the coin, the side that makes you go ahead and kneel, when stability tells you to do nothing or lock arms. In the first part of the film, Hall of Fame running back and longtime activist Jim Brown discusses the movement of black athletes in the late ’60s joining together to protest. It included Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor). It was a movement that was supported by Reverend Martin Luther King. O.J. Simpson was asked to join, but he declined. Brown described the athletes who did like this: “Every man in the room was a soldier. Every man in the room for nothing other than his beliefs and backing another brother felt that he should be there and to hell with the consequences.” He noted that he was judged as a successful, well-paid athlete who, to some, had nothing to complain about. “At the time, you were supposed to be satisfied. Or grateful,” he said. “For me it was really a matter of fairness, and what is correct.”

On the other hand, you had the way Simpson was described by white people, many of whom saw him as the perfect symbol of black marketability. Former New York Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte said about Simpson, “White America is looking for somebody who can erase the threat of the seemingly angry-principled black athletes who are going to create a revolution in sports. O.J. made people feel good.” Taking it a step further, one of Simpson’s business agents at the time, David Lockton, said, “It was clear, once you spent some time with O.J. that the Carlos, you know, fist pump and those kinds of situations were not going to be, you know, present in dealing with him. He just gave you that confidence that he understood what this was about.”

Some are built for taking unpopular stances more than others. Others simply have more experience in existing within predominantly white spaces and not conforming. For some, it comes naturally. For others, it takes time. It takes examples of others putting it on the line. Occasionally, there are those who don’t decide to do it, but it picks you and becomes your identity and then you make a decision to make it part of you, or not.

This past week in Massachusetts, a high-school football player named Mike Oppong was suspended for one game by his school for kneeling during the national anthem. On Twitter, he said, “I’m standing up to the injustice that happens to black people every day, not just cops killing black people. We are distrusted and mistreated everywhere we go because of the color of our skin and I’m sick of it.” At first this was a story of Twitter, then it made its way to news outlets. By Monday morning, his suspension was lifted.

This weekend, singer Solange Knowles wrote a blog post on her record label’s site about the treatment her family received from white onlookers at a Kraftwerk concert. In it, she states, “You read headlines that say, ‘Solange feels uncomfortable with white people,’ and want to use the classic ‘I have many white friends’ or ‘Half of my wedding guests were white’ line to prove that you do not dislike white people but dislike the way that many white people are constantly making you feel. Yet you know no amount of explaining will get you through to this type of person in the first place.”

Around the same time, I found a letter on my desk, addressed in messy, emotional cursive: “ATTN: Rembert Browne.” In my head, jokingly, I thought that someone had finally found a way to send me anthrax. Inside the envelope was a single piece of paper, glossy magazine paper, with my face on it. I’d recently been in my college’s alumni newsletter, agreeing to it after a friend mentioned that it was a good thing to have a young black person on the cover of an Ivy League school publication. You know, greater good shit for the youth. And that it would piss some people off, the right people.

On the piece of paper, the same scribble. This was hate mail. Written around the margins of my face: “You’re a disgrace to old Dartmouth and representative of the new cell!” it said. “This is the most debasing subject.” Below that, “It’s consistent with the degradation of Dartmouth.” And then on the other side, “The President and you deserve one another.”

Being black and talking about race professionally is often not fun, but knowing you’re doing the right thing and knowing you will give others the confidence to speak up can make it exhilarating. My college both molded me and is what it is because of an old core of alumni, some of whom truly want to make Dartmouth great again and will go out of their way to intimidate if necessary.

Our respective experiences might be the only thing that can put a magazine writer, a high-school kid, a member of pop-music royalty, and Colin Kaepernick on the same level — all making the leap. For all four of us, and millions of others, the reality is the same: Once you do or say that thing, you are that person to certain people forever.