Love him or loathe him, Colin Kaepernick is the most influential athlete of the 21st century

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Out of uniform and thus virtually out of the public eye, Colin Kaepernick took a seat during the national anthem before the San Francisco 49ers’ first preseason game in 2016. He did it again the next week, and again the moment passed with little notice.

On Aug. 26, 2016, after the 49ers’ third preseason game, Kaepernick was asked about his silent protest during the anthem. “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.”

The next week, after consulting with former NFL player and Green Beret Nate Boyer, Kaepernick decided instead to kneel. With that single action, Kaepernick set in motion waves that even now define sports in 21st-century America. It was the single most significant act of athlete protest since the 1968 Olympics, and Kaepernick himself forced difficult conversations in America like no one since Muhammad Ali. Admire him or loathe him — and there is seemingly no middle ground here — it’s clear that Colin Kaepernick is the most influential athlete of the 21st century.

Kaepernick has incited uncomfortable discussions about patriotism and respect. He has opened eyes. He has hardened hearts. He made sports a more inclusive world for some, a more uncomfortable experience for others. Five years and one pandemic later, it’s remarkable how much one single act of taking a knee vaulted the act of protest to the forefront of national conversation and permanently changed the face of sports.

“The pendulum has swung so far since he began kneeling five years ago,” says David Carter, a sports industry analyst and founder of the Sports Business Group. “[Today], social activism is the norm. Five years ago, it was an outlier.”

(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Michael Wagstaffe/Yahoo Sports illustration)

January 1, 2017. Kaepernick walks off the field in Santa Clara, California, after the last game of the 49ers’ season, a 25-23 loss to the Seahawks. He later asks for his release from the team after being told he’ll be cut. Despite projections showing him to be in the statistical middle of all starting quarterbacks heading into the 2017 season, he isn’t offered a job, and has not taken another snap in an NFL game.

The current state of athlete protest first exploded into the American consciousness with Kaepernick, but the act of protest during sporting events dates back at least to 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised fists on the podium at the Olympics and set off a worldwide firestorm of outrage. Ali wove the concept of protest into his very identity. More recently, the Miami Heat wore hoodies to protest the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Two years later, several members of the then-St. Louis Rams walked onto the field with their hands up in solidarity with protestors in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.

But Kaepernick’s decision in 2016 to move the protest directly into the national anthem changed the direction and velocity of athlete protests.

“He turned the athletic field into a contested political space,” says Dave Zirin, author of the forthcoming book “The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World.”

“We’re taught that the athletic field is an apolitical place, where everybody can gather regardless of politics. The reality is, that isn’t necessarily true. The playing field is a place of patriotism, where we celebrate the troops, where hyper-corporatism is selling whatever isn’t nailed down. Those are political features, whether one likes them or not.”

Before Kaepernick, pregame protests were easy enough to dismiss or ignore. A protest during the anthem — during what’s supposed to be the one sacred, silent moment of a game — was something else entirely. And Kaepernick’s protest kept going on, and on, and on, all season long.

“I’m not anti-American,” Kaepernick said after the first game where he kneeled, where he was booed continuously by San Diego Chargers fans. “I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.”

“He didn’t just say police brutality was bad,” Zirin says. “He said there’s a gap between what this nation says it stands for and the lived experience of Black Americans.”

This was a nuance that didn’t survive the first news cycle. The act of Kaepernick’s protest, not the reasons behind it, became the flashpoint: Are you for or against kneeling during the anthem? When it came to light that prior to the protests, Kaepernick wore socks depicting police officers as pigs, and later in the season revealed he didn’t vote in the 2016 election, the raging debate moved further and further away from his original message.

And then came Donald Trump.

September 22, 2017. President Donald Trump is at the podium in Huntsville, Alabama. Although Kaepernick hasn’t played a game since January, he and his protests are on Trump’s mind. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!’” Trump says. He later adds that protesting players are “hurting the game.” For the rest of the season, Kaepernick will be the stake that Trump continues to drive into the heart of the NFL.

Trump’s declaration put respect for the flag, not social justice, at the center of the arena. In response, NFL players across the league took a knee in solidarity the next week, and even notable figures such as Jerry Jones joined in the initial round of demonstrations. As the season wore on, a few players continued to kneel … and Kaepernick remained unsigned.

Patriotism became the prize, with each side charging that it held a greater claim on the true meaning of being American. Many Americans — particularly veterans and their families — saw Kaepernick’s protest as inherently disrespectful to the military because it took place during the national anthem. Others noted that the military defends all freedoms, including the freedom to protest during the national anthem. Matt Ufford, a sportswriter and former Marine, tried to find a middle path in a memorable 2017 SB Nation essay:

“When Colin Kaepernick first sat during the anthem,” Ufford wrote, “I took offense. How could I not? Kaepernick rejected a ritual that was part of my identity as an American. But it was also his First Amendment right to protest peacefully. I swore an oath to defend the Constitution, not my feelings … I had to say it to myself: It’s not about me. It’s not about the troops. It’s about Kaepernick’s experience as a Black man in America. And he started the protest because he saw Black men dying preventable deaths.”

It’s clear why Kaepernick’s protest caught fire, and why it continues to serve as the North Star and shorthand for all athlete protests. Along with partisan rage, the NFL is the closest America now comes to a common language — 69 of the top 100 most-watched programs in 2020 were NFL games. The quarterback is the most visible position on the field, the best-known player in the stadium, and Kaepernick himself was only a few years removed from nearly winning the Super Bowl.

An NFL quarterback using the national anthem as a medium for delivering a message was a cultural shockwave unlike any felt in sports in at least half a century, and it forced American leagues, teams, sponsors and fans to rethink — or retrench — in the face of protest. Supporters of Kaepernick found in him a common cause.

Many of Kaepernick’s loudest critics, meanwhile, questioned his patriotism; his dedication to his cause; even his standing to speak on behalf of victims, given his own relatively privileged upbringing. Undisguised racism littered comment sections and Facebook posts on Kaepernick stories.

Less emotionally charged critiques bypassed the racial dog whistles and the singleminded focus on patriotism, and instead dug into the numbers to investigate the statistical evidence for Black men dying at the hands of police officers. Since 2015, the Washington Post has published “Fatal Force,” a regularly updated database of police shootings. For the year 2016, the Post found that 234 Black men were killed by police, 19 of whom were unarmed.

To be clear: no unjustifiable death at the hands of police is acceptable. Any number above zero is an unforgivable tragedy. But critics of the tenor of Kaepernick’s protest contended that focusing on wrenching, appalling individual stories rather than cumulative data gave a distorted picture of the relative danger.

After the 2016 season, Kaepernick largely stopped speaking to the national media. At his hastily organized 2019 tryout in Atlanta, he delivered a statement to the assembled media but took no questions at what would have been an opportune time to expand on his message. His strategy to remain silent has left a vacuum that supporters and critics have rushed to fill.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA - AUGUST 26: An empty court and bench is shown with no signage following the scheduled start time in Game Five of the Eastern Conference First Round between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on August 26, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The Milwaukee Buck have boycotted game 5 reportedly to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
An empty court and bench is shown with no signage following the scheduled start time in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Orlando Magic during the 2020 NBA playoffs. The Milwaukee Buck have boycotted Game 5 to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

August 26, 2020. Four years to the day after Kaepernick’s first protest, demonstrations break out across the sports world in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Bucks walk out of a playoff game, and in their wake, teams in the WNBA, MLB, NFL, MLS and others leave courts and fields empty, the crest of an enormous wave of athlete protests in the summer of 2020.

After a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in May 2020 — exactly the kind of brutal police treatment Kaepernick was protesting in 2016 — teams and leagues faced a reckoning. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell even conceded that “I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to.”

Leagues all along the sports spectrum, from the NFL to the PGA Tour, from the WNBA to NASCAR, made nods in 2020 toward social justice. Some pledged funds, some promised education, some placed pre-approved hashtags on the court or field or jerseys. In the months since then, the slogans have quietly disappeared from the leagues’ messaging, but the new focus on activism won’t go away quite so quietly.

“The sports industry is forever changed,” Carter says. “It’s going to be difficult to get back to where a contingent of fans [want it to be], for sports to be a diversion. I’m not sure that’s going to exist any further.”

“It’s interesting to see how quickly the NFL evolved, from ‘these are not the values of our audience’ to ‘these are our values, and our audience needs to adjust,’ ” says Dr. Mike Lewis of Emory University's Marketing Analytics Center. “It’s fascinating how quickly the NFL has reversed course.”

The ripples of the Kaepernick protests have settled, and the sports industry has gone through several cycles of backlash and counter-backlash — as well as the wrenching disruption of the pandemic and the 2020 social justice protests. Whatever sports may look like in 2030, they won’t mirror the less-activist days of, say, 2010. That has significant implications for fans, teams and athletes alike.

As the concept of athlete protest has become normalized in the post-Kaepernick era, fans’ attitudes have changed. At the time of Kaepernick’s first protest, only 28 percent of respondents to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found his actions “appropriate.” Two years later, that figure had risen only a few points, to 35 percent. But by the summer of 2020, in the wake of the George Floyd story and the resulting widespread protests, a majority of Americans — 52 percent — believed it is “OK for NFL players to kneel during the national anthem to protest police killings of African Americans.”

That change in attitude reflects the change in the relationship between fan and athlete. Zirin says that the days of catering only to the apolitical fan who wants nothing more from sports than “escape” are over. He contends that Kaepernick’s protest is part of a long tradition of athletes, stretching back to Ali, who refused to be seen as mere performers.

“It’s forced people to open their eyes who, by choice, were not opening their eyes,” he says. “What Kaepernick did was, he severed segregation and punctured privilege. He took away the idea that you can imbibe in sports, particularly the excitement and genius that Black athletes provide in sports, but not care what they have to say about the communities from which they come.”

That’s a tough pill to swallow for fans not accustomed to focusing on the athletes as anything more than diversions. But here’s where the money comes into play. The NFL’s ratings dipped in 2017, and there’s ample debate about why, with reasons ranging from cable TV cord-cutting to outrage at protesting athletes to the wider range of available entertainment options. Critics predicted doom for the NFL, but the astronomical sums that networks are paying for broadcasting rights well into the 2030s suggest otherwise.

Kaepernick’s protests certainly turned some fans away from the league. Even so, networks and advertisers expect that the league will remain incredibly lucrative because of the increasing presence of gambling and the value of live television … and despite any backlash against protests.

Teams, too, are doing the same calculus, and many are finding it’s worthwhile to position themselves as sympathetic to protests and social justice causes. This comes with a cost, but as Carter notes, many leagues and teams are determining that it’s a bearable one.

“You do run the risk of alienating certain fan groups,” he says. “Certain fan demographics are not as interested in supporting [protest], whether because of age, gender or region. Sports teams have to calibrate which fans they are alienating, versus which fans they are catering to. If they believe in catering to a more profitable fan base, they may be willing to go all in on social activism, and the net gain may be higher. If they lose someone who’s not spending as much money, the risk of replacing them, relative to the risk of replacing a younger, more avid fan might be OK.”

There will be concessions to fans who don’t want to focus on the social justice element of sports — the national anthem is rarely broadcast, for instance, and commentary about protest causes is now virtually nonexistent — but protest and social allyship are now like sponsor logos and American flags, always there if you look in the right direction.

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 01: (L-R) Silver medalist Raven Saunders of Team United States, gold medalist Lijiao Gong of Team China and bronze medalist Valerie Adams of Team New Zealand pose with their medals during the medal ceremony for the Women's Shot Put on day nine of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 01, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Silver medalist Raven Saunders of the United States, gold medalist Lijiao Gong of Team China and bronze medalist Valerie Adams of Team New Zealand pose with their medals during the medal ceremony for the Women's Shot Put on day nine of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 01, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

August 1, 2021. Team USA’s Raven Saunders, silver medalist in the shot put at the Tokyo Olympics, takes a moment at the podium to raise her arms in an “X” formation to express solidarity for oppressed individuals of all stripes. Despite the International Olympic Committee’s Rule 50 prohibiting any kind of protest, Saunders is one of many athletes exhibiting various forms of protest at the Games.

Although Kaepernick’s name remains a reliable way to drum up both inspiration and outrage, it comes up less and less in statements of protest. In the past five years, he has reportedly donated millions to various causes, published books, and pursued community outreach through his Know Your Rights Camp foundation. While he no longer has an NFL contract, he’s signed sponsorship deals with companies like Nike, who has produced a line of popular Kaepernick jerseys … as well as the occasionally contentious shoe.

But he has remained largely silent on a broader scale. His NFL opportunities are through, even though the “Madden” video game still ranks him as a viable quarterback. He’s transitioning from player to symbol, and others — from high school students to fellow pro athletes — are following his example.

“In five years, we’re going to be dealing with a generation of athletes who grew up thinking of Colin Kaepernick as a hero,” Zirin says. “He gave [them] a method and a language [of protest], where before that did not exist.”

“I haven't experienced police brutality, or racism, in that way,” U.S. Women’s National Team captain Megan Rapinoe told Yahoo Sports in 2019. “But knowing that it obviously happens, and knowing that it's a very real thing, and that there's something I can do to lend to that movement, or lend to those voices, or to support them, that's important.”

“It’s undeniable he has accelerated the opportunity for other athletes to get involved and not be concerned about losing contracts with teams or endorsement contracts,” Carter says. “He’s inoculated the next generation of athletes against that.”

“The NFL really wanted Colin Kaepernick to become a ghost story to frighten a new generation of players,” Zirin says. “Instead of being a ghost, he became an animating spirit.”

For now, Kaepernick connects with the public at large through his publishing imprint, which has already published “Abolition for the People,” a 30-essay manifesto, with a children’s book, “I Color Myself Different,” slated for publication next April. In February 2020, Kaepernick also announced that an autobiography was in the works.

The pendulum swings back and forth. Athletes who protest today will still draw criticism, but on a smaller, social media level, not the apocalyptic lead-the-national-news scope of Kaepernick in 2016. An athlete of any age speaking out on matters of social justice or awareness isn’t a rarity, but a frequent, almost constant, occurrence. The divisiveness still exists, but so too does a growing acceptance of vocal athletes. Change has come to all of sports, and all of it sprang from one decision to kneel.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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