When Colin Kaepernick knelt during the National Anthem to raise awareness for the “[oppression of] black people and people of color” in 2016, his protest elicited instantaneous backlash. Dubbed spoiled, selfish, and anti-American, Kaepernick felt the ramifications of his protest immediately: he was shortly benched for the remainder of the season and has not returned to the field since the season of his protests. The fervor of the backlash to his protests raged from talk show hosts to congressmen to, unsurprisingly, President Trump
For instance, consider the prominent Fox News host Jeanine Pirro’s reaction to Kaepernick’s protests. She questions whether “we have the fortitude, courage, and determination to stand up to those who threaten our values” in the context of the NFL protests. Her ominous inquisition begs a few questions: What values, exactly, does Pirro see threatened by Kaepernick’s protests? To whom is she referring with the collective pronoun ‘we’? The answer, sadly, has little to do with Kaepernick or his protest. Pirro knowingly implies that black people are “threatening” the status quo—which oftentimes favors white people above minorities. At its crux, the protests are rooted in seemingly non-controversial ideas (the idea that black people should be treated justly should not outrage anyone); however, the fact that they are coming from black Americans rather than white ones provokes widespread backlash and “threaten our values” —referring to the values of white Americans. The backlash to the protests reveal a dark truth about America: white people still control most of the power and influence in this country, and they do not intend to cede their power. Pirro’s intimations are reminiscent of the ominous “you will not replace us” language of the Charlottesville’s white supremacist riots. Perhaps more troublingly, President Donald Trump recently describes his personal utopia as a fantasy world where NFL owners would say to protesting athletes, “Get that son of a b*tch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired!” There is nothing anti-American about expressing an opinion; however, using the presidency to silence an opinion runs counter to the most fundamental of American values. Unfortunately, Trump and Pirro are not anomalous exceptions in their reactions; they are part of a systemic pattern against challenges to the status quo, which, ironically, is exactly what the football players are protesting.
Kaepernick’s protests proved effective — Google reports Kaepernick was within the Top 10 most searched athletes of 2016, an especially difficult feat to achieve during an Olympics year. Eventually, Kaepernick’s movement spread across the NFL — players and teams across the league unified in an attempt to use their platform to raise awareness to the largely ignored or underemphasized issue of the unfair treatment of black Americans, ranging from the police shootings of innocent black people to the flawed criminal justice system that puts black Americans at a significant disadvantage. His reputation tarnished and his career effectively over, Kaepernick incited further controversy when he was unveiled as the face of Nike’s newest advertisement campaign. While many praised Nike and the ad, others burned their Nike shoes and made #BoycottNike trend on Twitter.
Shortly after the announcement of Kaepernick as the face of their ad campaign, Nike released a video, narrated by and starring Kaepernick, which features numerous young athletes who have pursued their athletic dreams—often overcoming rough beginnings or physical disabilities to do so. In fact, Kaepernick is the only prominent person featured in the ad who is not featured demonstrating his athleticism. Rather, Kaepernick, once a starting NFL quarterback, now walks alone through a city, while the buildings behind him project the successes of the other athletes from the video—a woman wearing a Nike hijab, a refugee who played soccer in the world cup, a young Serena Williams, alongside others. The symbolism is powerful: Kaepernick, instead of quarterbacking, is ushering in a more diverse, inclusive sporting world.
Colin Kaepernick—like all other people—is not perfect. Perhaps he did not sacrifice everything in his protests. Perhaps he has used the traction from the movement he created to fill his pockets. Perhaps he did turn down an offer to play as a backup quarterback. Maybe not. But what he has done—and what SPEC so tirelessly strives to do—is start a conversation. Kaepernick, if nothing else, has sparked a movement that has challenged people to thoughtfully examine the treatment of black people. People often talk about the merits of sparking a conversation or protesting civilly. Kaepernick just did it.
Graphic Design by Jackson Edwards