Over the past few weeks the NFL has been the subject of mass player protests, largely ignited by President Donald Trump’s comments regarding players who failed to stand during the national anthem. The protests, which began in August last year, reached a new high when at least one member of every NFL team sat, knelt or raised their fist in protest against the oppression they felt people of colour were under in America. Trump’s response to the protests, which was delivered in a statement during a rally in Pittsburgh on September 22nd, was to call for NFL owners to sack the “Sons of bitches” who were “disrespecting the flag”.
The protests started as a peaceful protest by a lone soul. It was August 26th 2016, the San Francisco 49ers were taking on the Green Bay Packers in the last preseason game before the new season. Everyone was waiting for the American national anthem to begin, for ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ to blare from the speakers scattered across the stadium. As is tradition, all players, coaches, staff and fans rose to honour the anthem. Well, almost all: because sat on the 49ers bench was quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In doing so, he began one of the most wide-ranging social protests American sport has ever seen.
Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the anthem went largely unnoticed at the time, until an image of him sitting on the bench was tweeted by the sports account, Niners Nation. The tweet went viral, and 49ers fans voiced their anger through social media, booing him and burning replica versions of Kaepernick’s jersey in the belief that Kaepernick was dishonouring the American constitution, its flag, its veterans, its people and, in that same mood, that Kaepernick was dishonouring them themselves. Following the initial protests, journalists asked Kaepernick the reasoning behind what many saw as his ‘misdemeanour’. In an interview during an open training session a few days after the game with the Green Bay Packers, he was quoted as saying “ I am not going to stand up to show pride to a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour”. Following these comments, NFL executives released a statement calling Kaepernick’s protests “a distraction” and “embarrassing”. However, the fire had already been lit.
As the weeks passed, and Kaepernick still sat during the anthem, he was joined by other players and teams across the league. Kaepernick and his teammate, Eric Read, decided to change their protest following a conversation with former NFL player and a member of the United States Special Forces, Nate Boyer. Rather than sitting during the anthem, they decided to instead take a knee, in order to not offend ex-American troops who fought for the flag. Not too long after the change, there were singers kneeling while singing the national anthem, cheerleading sections taking the knee and even the whole team and coaching staff of a high school team in Wisconsin deciding to take the knee in support of Colin Kaepernick, and against the oppression he brought attention to.
The issue reached outside the world of sport, too, with actors, musicians and public figures issuing their support for the protests. On October 3rd 2016, less than two months after the protests began, Kaepernick was featured, in full 49ers uniform while kneeling, on the cover of TIMES Magazine. Kaepernick was quickly dropped by the 49ers, as the protests continued and he failed to feature in more than twelves games in the regular season, most of which were substitutions from the bench. As the months rolled on it was made clear by the owners of the 49ers that they would be unwilling to give him more playing time unless he gave up his protests. He did not, and on the 3rd of March 2017 Colin Kaepernick voluntarily opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers.
Despite being one of the best quarterbacks in the league when he last played, Kaepernick is to this day a free agent. Rumours were circulated around the NFL that Kaepernick was unfit to play, but a statistical analysis by the company FiveThirtyEight provided more evidence to the widespread belief that Kaepernick is indeed fit enough to play in the NFL, but is being frozen out due to his political beliefs – a belief that police brutality was oppressing the black citizens of America. The latest on Kaepernick’s hunt for a team is that, according to former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Lewis, Kaepernick was set to join the Ravens but that plan was scrapped after Kaepernick’s girlfriend posted a picture on Twitter which, using an image from the movie ‘Django Unchained’, compared Ravens owner Steve Biscotti to a slave owner.
While things had seemed to be going quiet for Kaepernick, Trump’s comments dragged the issue back into the spotlight, and was a major reason for the mass player protests this past month, during which members of each NFL team knelt or stood with fists raised in protest, in solidarity with Kaepernick in front of the whole world. During the protests, NFL teams and Twitter accounts were tweeting images of players kneeling with phrases such as ‘Solidarity’ and ‘Unity’ attached, but this wasn’t about unity. This was about the lack of unity from the American people, the American police department and the American legal system, which seems to do all it can to make life more difficult for black people and people of colour. This is about the lone crusaders of the world – just like Colin Kaepernick on that sunny day in August.