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How Colin Kaepernick changed hearts and minds, 5 years after he refused to stand | Marcus Hayes

The NFL caved. The nation heaved. Black Lives Matter. We're getting there.

San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick (7) and Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 18, 2016.
San Francisco 49ers' Colin Kaepernick (7) and Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 18, 2016.Read moreMike McCarn / AP

When quarterback Colin Kaepernick gently knelt during the national anthem in 2016, he set off an earthquake. We feel those aftershocks today. Thursday, Aug. 26, marks the anniversary of our notice of Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the playing of the national anthem. Five years later, those elegant acts of silent, submissive protest affect how we view our neighbors; how we feel about police and the courts; what we think of our elected officials; when and where we think dissent should be allowed; and even how we teach our children about our collective past, warts and all.

If you paid attention these five years, then you now have a clearer understanding of labor law and free speech, about which Kaepernick and his allies were 100% correct. If you paid attention, you now have a clearer understanding how the institutional racism of the American criminal justice system is skewed to intimidate and incarcerate people of color.

You now have a clearer understanding because of an enigmatic San Francisco 49ers quarterback whose piercing gaze, measured tones, and glorious Afro became a beacon of truth and hope for an African-American population that has been suffocated by a system for more than 400 years. You have learned this through a pandemic, and a summer of deadly demonstrations, and two presidential election cycles, and through dozens of other protests sympathetic to Kaepernick’s refusal to remain silent about racial discrimination and police brutality. We live in a post-Kaep world, both inside and outside of our comfortable sports bubble. Why?

“Because he burst that bubble,” said Dave Zirin, author of “The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World.” The book focuses on how Kaepernick empowered athletes to protest when they are most visible — in their arenas and on their fields — and to not, as LeBron James was once told, “shut up and dribble.”

Kaepernick left no room for indifference.

“Colin Kaepernick became, in 2016, not a quarterback you liked or disliked,” Zirin said. “He became a human being you were either for or you were against.”

The NFL was against. The commissioner, Roger Goodell, said in 2016, “We believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL. I personally believe very strongly in that.”

Five years later, the NFL has capitulated. By December of 2017, Malcolm Jenkins, then an Eagles safety, and the Players Coalition had secured an $89 million commitment from the NFL to address injustices. In 2019, it settled a collusion lawsuit filed by Kaepernick (and former teammate Eric Reid). Kaepernick has not played in the NFL since 2016. In 2020, after dozens of other atrocities led to some of the largest protests in U.S. history, Goodell admitted on a podcast, “I wish we had listened earlier.”

Goodell had “It Takes All of Us” and “End Racism” emblazoned on the league’s end zones, and played “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the Black national anthem, played during opening weekend. “Black Lives Matter,” the name of the organization most closely associated with Kaepernick’s cause and a phrase that was once anathema to the NFL, became a helmet slogan and punctuated a Goodell tweet.

How much did it matter?

Did Kaep change the vote? Did Kaepernick’s protest, and the movement his protests birthed, convince otherwise uninterested citizens to vote for upset winner Donald Trump in 2016 ... or, at least, to vote against Kaepernick supporter Hillary Clinton?

No, Kaepernick probably didn’t move the needle that much.

“If anything, I think it’s the opposite,” said professor Lonna Rae Atkeson, director of the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State and a voting expert who contributes to the MIT Election Data Science Lab. “It might have impacted how people felt about football more than how they felt about voting.”

No doubt, politicizing the playing field annoyed millions, and the causes seemed tangential compared with more tangible problems.

“This was such a small issue compared with policy that affects people directly,” Atkeson explained. “‘If they raise taxes, that affects me directly. If they give me $300 a month because I have kids, that affects me directly. Football players kneel at a football game -- that has no effect on me.’ It’s symbolic. That symbolism, per se, would not have any causal impact on voter decision-making.”

That might be true, but it sure felt like Kaepernick’s shadow colored everything last year. In the wake of more deaths of Black people at the hands of police, culminating with the videotaped murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the echo of Kaepernick’s concerns resonated through the streets of U.S. cities from Philadelphia to Portland, Ore.

Taking it to the streets

On May 26, 2020, Floyd, a Black man arrested on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill, was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for 9 minutes, 29 seconds. Floyd lay in the street, handcuffed and helpless, while three other officers prevented passersby from intervening. The horror was videotaped by a 17-year-old girl. The killing sparked the largest protests in U.S. history; as many as 26 million people spent the summer voicing their exhaustion with the epidemic of racist violence in America and the impunity with which police can operate.

From the NBA and WNBA, from soccer to softball, from youth sports through high schools through college, some emboldened by Kaepernick’s sacrifice, athletes took the lead.

Zirin began researching his book in early 2020, examining how Kaepernick’s stance influenced their own decisions to protest, often in small towns, where community sports rule all, and where anonymity is impossible. After Floyd’s murder, Zirin re-interviewed several of the subjects in his book.

“They were all in the streets,” he said. “For these people -- especially the high-school level people -- taking a knee while they were playing football, soccer, volleyball, cheerleader, whatever, that was the first political act they’d ever taken in their lives. And now, here they are, leading serious street demonstrations.”

From the little guy to superstars, everyone got in on the act — even cowards from yesteryear.

In the 1990s, Michael Jordan refused to engage politically so he could sell more shoes. Charles Barkley was a Republican. Jordan has since called his pro-commerce stance “selfish,” and he issued a rare statement after Floyd’s murder. Barkley, no longer a member of the GOP, last year campaigned for Doug Jones, who upset Roy Moore in a Senate race in Barkley’s deep-red home state of Alabama. Barkley has been all over the map regarding protests during the anthem, but in June 2020 he finally called Kaepernick “courageous” and “honorable.”

If you can get Sir Charles to change his mind, you’ve done something. Kaepernick has changed millions of minds, and he has enlightened millions more.

“He created a bridge from what was happening on the athletic field to real antipathy for racism and police violence,” Zirin said. “Of the many bridges that led us to the summer of 2020, one significant one was paved by athletes, and, most centrally, by Colin Kaepernick.”