Taking a knee as a stand to end racial violence

Love him or hate him, Colin Kaepernick is the 21st century’s Muhammad Ali.

Tell someone that you are working on an appreciation of Colin Kaepernick and you get one of only two responses:

“I love Colin Kaepernick. What a hero.”
“I hate Colin Kaepernick. What a jerk (or another four-letter word).”

About the only thing that everyone agrees on is that he may be the most divisive sports figure since Muhammad Ali in the 1960s. And, as with Ali, we might not be able to take the full measure of the man for years to come.

One who thinks we will not have to wait that long is Lonnie Ali, the champ’s widow.

When Kaepernick received the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Award in 2017, she said: “I am proud to be able to present this to Colin for his passionate defense of social justice and civil rights for all people. …Like Muhammad,
Colin is a man who stands on his convictions with confidence and courage, undaunted by the personal sacrifices he has had to make to have his message heard. And he has used his celebrity and philanthropy to the benefit of some of our most vulnerable community members.” 

To date, Kaepernick has donated $1 million to grassroots charities as part of his “Million Dollar Pledge,” with the final $100,000 consisting of 10 $10,000 matching grants.

He is also the recipient of Amnesty International’s 2018 Ambassador of Conscience Award and the 2018 W.E.B. Du Bois Medal presented by the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University.

Heroes, as we wrote in our December WAG story on activist-tennis star Arthur Ashe, are not born. Rather they are made by their response to their times. Kaepernick was percolating along in the most glamorous, influential of sports positions, that of NFL quarterback. And not just quarterback for any team but that of the San Francisco 49ers, for which Joe Montana — rated by many as the greatest QB to date — and fellow Hall of Famer Steve Young were past signal callers. 

Kaepernick — who succeeded Alex Smith as the Niners’ quarterback after Smith suffered a concussion in the middle of the 2012 season — was building a similar golden boy résumé. Super Bowl appearance (in Super Bowl XLVII against the ultimately victorious Baltimore Ravens). Check. Advertising contracts with companies like Jaguar and Nike. Check. Covers for GQ and ESPN’s Body issue. Check, check and check.

The most controversial thing about Kaepernick prior to the 2016 preseason was whether or not a running quarterback such as he was a viable option in the NFL despite the presence of several running or highly mobile quarterbacks like Robert Griffin III, formerly of the Washington Redskins, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks, Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers, Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and even Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers. (For that matter, the Greenwich-raised  Young had been a running quarterback who rushed the Niners all the way to victory in Super Bowl XXIX.)

And then someone noticed Kaepernick wasn’t running or even standing, but sitting during the presentation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the third preseason game. In a post-game interview, Kaepernick said, “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,” he added, referring to a series of police shootings of black men that led to the Black Lives Matter movement. He said he would continue to protest — which evolved into taking a knee as a mournful sign of respect after he talked with former NFL-er and military veteran Nate Boyer — until the country and its symbols once more represented what they should.

Needless to say, all hell broke loose. Others joined in — and weighed in, burning his jersey and making it the top seller. Kaepernick was praised, damned, threatened with death and blamed for the drop in the NFL’s TV ratings, which might also be attributed to the saturated coverage of what has become a year-round sport.

Meanwhile, Kaepernick lost and regained his starting job on the team but ultimately exercised his right to opt out of his contract, becoming a free agent in 2017. To no one’s surprise, he didn’t receive any offers from other NFL teams. This has led Kaepernick to file a grievance against the NFL, accusing the team owners of colluding to prevent him from playing. Arbiter Stephen B. Burbank, the David Berger professor for the administration of justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, has denied the NFL’s request to dismiss the case. A hearing is expected for early in this new year in Philadelphia.

The kneeling protests and the controversy have lingered — sparked in part by President Donald Trump’s disapproving tweets and comments in September 2017, which led to team displays of solidarity on the field, and by outrage as Kaepernick remains sidelined while someone like linebacker Reuben Foster, cited for domestic abuse, has been picked up by the Washington Redskins from the 49ers. The alleged blackballing of Kaepernick led Nike to put out a controversial yet calculated ad as part of its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign, featuring the activist’s face and the words:  “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” The company has also donated to Kaepernick’s “Know Your Rights” campaign.

In a sense, Kaepernick was born for this storm. He was the child of a white mother, Heidi Russo, and a black father in a country where being part of two such worlds can seem as if you belong to neither. Rick and Teresa Kaepernick, who adopted Colin after losing their third and fourth children to congenital heart defects, have said they raised him to be proud of his heritage. But they could not protect him entirely from prejudice, particularly the well-meaning kind that might be more difficult to counter because it is more insidious. 

In September 2013, Kaepernick told GQ about the childhood summer vacations when he’d be standing uneasily next to his family as they checked into a motel and someone would invariably come up to him and say, “Can I help you?” as if he didn’t belong.

For that issue, he posed on the cover like a model, abs and tats rippling and gleaming, his hair closely shaved and a smile on his chiseled face. Four years later, he was back on the cover in a black turtleneck and jacket and full-blown Afro, a new seriousness of purpose written on his features.

It’s a measure of how far he’s come.

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