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.