It’s been a little more than five years since then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated on the sideline during the playing of the national anthem before a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. It was not the first time he had done this, but it was the first time anyone had noticed.
A year later, Donald Trump was president of the United States and demanding that protesting players should be “dragged off the field” (he’d later add that they should be “deported”), and the NFL had become, to its owners’ great chagrin, the most political sports league on the planet. And, oh yeah, those owners had blackballed Kaepernick from the league. (Twenty nine years old and in his athletic prime at the time, he has yet to play football again.)
Four years later, the entire sports world looks very different. NFL players are sporting “END RACISM” and “BLACK LIVES MATTER” decals on their helmets, NBA players boycotted playoff games because of police shootings, and Kaepernick is the center of a global marketing campaign from Nike and an origin-story streaming series from Ava DuVernay and Netflix. Even in the context of the massive upheavals of American life in the last five years, that’s a lot of impact.
Author and Nation sports editor Dave Zirin, who has been writing about athlete activism and the political culture of sports longer than some of your favorite athletes have been alive, has chronicled this tumultuous, potentially revolutionary new period in sports history in his new book, The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World. It’s Zirin’s 11th book, and perhaps his most urgent. The book covers the fallout of Kaepernick’s initial decision to sit (and later kneel), but while Zirin is interested in the backlash the quarterback incurred personally, he’s far more concerned with the young athletes, from pro stars to high schoolers to little kids, who were inspired by Kaepernick. He thinks the ground-up change that Kaepernick kicked off is just beginning.
I spoke to Zirin about how Kaepernick changed the world, and what the future of athlete activism might look like.
One of the things I’d completely forgotten is that Kaepernick’s kneeling was in fact a compromise: He was initially just sitting for the anthem, but decided to kneel as a middle ground, a way not to disrespect active troops. As you write, “It’s fair to say this was a miscalculation.” Do you think there was any way, once the story initially broke, that what he did could have been less immediately polarizing? Or were people just going to willfully misinterpret anything the second it happened?
It’s a reflection of how incredibly polarized this country is that there is literally nothing Kaepernick could have done at that point that would not have stoked the hard-right, mob-like response — unless he had done what he steadfastly refused to do: bow his head and apologize. The people inside and outside the sports media who already hated Kaepernick were not going to be deterred. He had already said that police “are getting away with murder.” He had already refused to stand during the anthem. These were conscious acts to make white people uncomfortable and force them to confront the reality of policing in Black and brown communities. Some people did choose to listen. But far too many saw it as a call to arms against the truths he was telling.
His protest was initially a silent one, and it just happened to be noticed by an NFL.com reporter. Do you think Kaepernick’s protest would have remained under the radar if that hadn’t happened? Would Kapernick have been okay with it if it stayed that way?
I think yes, and yes. I have doubts that anyone would have necessarily noticed if Steve Wyche hadn’t seen it, hadn’t been following Kaepernick’s social media, and saw a story. Colin Kaepernick was never going for the spotlight until it was imposed upon him. And I think he would have absolutely been fine with that. His character is not one that strains for attention like some kind of social-media gadfly. He was put under the bright lights and to his credit — even though it goes against his disposition — he refused to wilt during that entire 2016 season. Basically he did what John Carlos and Tommie Smith did at the 1968 Olympics … and did it for four solid months. It’s no wonder it had an effect on thousands of young athletes who replicated what he did in communities around the country (and that is, of course, the focus of the book).
What is it about Kapernick’s protest specifically that made it catch fire the way that, while Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s, or even Carlos Delgado’s, never did?
First and foremost, it’s because of football. This is the closest thing we have left to a monocultural product in this country. And he was a quarterback — not just a quarterback but a Super Bowl quarterback. That put him on a different cultural plane than MAR or Delgado. Secondly, there was a movement in the streets that supported and amplified what Kaepernick was doing. And lastly, there’s the reality of social media, which turned his action into a roiling daily debate for the entire season and beyond. All of this was a perfect storm.
Of the people you talked to who were inspired by Kaepernick, who were you most affected by?
I was moved by everyone. I spoke to damn near 100 people and I couldn’t pick one. I was moved by the enormity of what these kids took on. I was moved by the ways in which it transcended region. I was moved by their courage in high school and college — times where there is a pressure to fit in and not stand out, especially in the oft-authoritarian world of organized sports. Just amazing people, the whole lot of them. They give me hope and optimism in otherwise difficult times.
I wrote a big story about More Than a Vote, and its prevailing theory is that activism is now just something athletes have ingrained within them, that they’ll want to be a part of it from the beginning. Do you think this generation is more engaged politically than previous ones, or is it just that we can hear them more now?
There is greater political engagement than previous generations, no question. It’s not just a social-media phenomenon. It’s a product of the pressure cooker of crisis under which young people live, and I’d argue that older adults don’t get that. I saw a cartoon of an adult talking to a depressed-looking teen and the adult says, “What’s your problem? Why are you so down?” And the teen says, “Well, there’s the environment, police brutality, political corruption, the rise of the far right, and the student loans I’ll be spending the rest of my life paying off.” And the adult says, “I KNEW it was those phones!” I felt that when interviewing young people for the book. The one name that came up in every interview was not Colin Kaepernick. It was Trayvon Martin. If you are 19, Trayvon was murdered when you were 10. It marked and traumatized their lives in a profound way. And many of the adults around them didn’t get it.
Is there danger in having corporations and leagues embrace the messaging of the Black Lives Matter movement, perhaps using it as a way to focus more on messaging than action? What do you think of how the NFL and other leagues have treated activism since last summer, and since the 2020 election? And do you think Roger Goodell has said “Black Lives Matter” since he said it in that grainy video?
I do think Goodell has said it since then, as in, “Keep track of all the players who put Black Lives Matter on their helmets.” Goodell has operated with a carrot and stick since Kaepernick kneeled. The carrot are these press conferences, these slogans on the helmet, and the support for the Players Coalition and other inoffensive social activism by athletes. The stick is obvious: Colin Kaepernick is not on a roster. Eric Reid is not on a roster. Kenny Stills is not on a roster. He is trying to keep people in line, fronting for an ownership that has treated these players like they are ghost stories to haunt a generation of players from offending the fan base by daring to say that there is a problem with commercialized patriotism in a country where, yes, police still get away with murder.
Politics and sports are obviously connected because politics and everything are connected. But do you understand why some people try so desperately to keep them apart? I will say, after some of the horrible things that have happened the last few years, I’ve found myself wanting to escape the world and just dive into the simplicity of a sporting event more than ever before.
I’m with you! I use sports as escape all the time. I have a sports-loving son and we go to games, watch sports, play sports. I even coach him in rec basketball. But it’s because I love sports — the escape of sports — that I want them to be better.
You and I have known each other a long time, back when I was a dumb(er) blogger and you were, as far as I could tell, one of the only people talking about political activism in sports. Now this is one of the biggest stories in sports. Did you think we’d ever get here? Do you think this momentum can last?
I did think we’d get here because we’ve been here before. And, especially in this country, where it seems like we are constantly reinventing the wheel and fighting the battles of the past in an effort to wrest a modicum of justice from the system … past is prologue.
This interview has been edited for clarity.