Though he hasn’t taken an NFL snap in years, Colin Kaepernick remains a vital figure and two books take a look at his importance and impact
It’s been over five years since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee during the National Anthem, bringing the worlds of politics and sports together in the national mind in a way they had not been in years. And even though he has not played in the NFL for nearly five years, he remains a vital figure. The racism and police violence he was protesting then have not vanished, only reaffirming the necessity of his actions. In the quest to examine his importance and examine what, years later, those protests really meant, two recent books take different approaches to understand why one man taking a knee became and remained such an iconic moment.
The first of these is Dave Zirin’s The Kaepernick Effect which aims to show how the 49ers quarterback directly influenced other athletes to take a knee themselves. Inspired, they adopted his method of protest and used it to wordlessly express what they felt but had been unable to previously articulate. While for NFL team owners Kaepernick was “an object lesson to haunt a new generation of players, a warning to not speak out,” to the athletes profiled here, he was “a galvanizing spirit, inspiring a new generation of athletes to take the field of play and use it as a platform for protest.”
Zirin organizes the book into three sections, profiling high school, college, and then professional athletes in each. Every athlete’s story is interesting in its own way as readers will see what particularly motivated them to speak out and how others responded — in ways ranging from clear support to death threats. It is often fascinating to see how these stories diverge, but perhaps even moreso how they overlap. One can see how pivotal the death of Trayvon Martin was in awakening these young athletes; Zirin goes as far as to call Martin “their generation’s Emmett Till,” which does not seem like a bold claim after reading his book.
The reverberations of Colin Kaepernick’s protest are still being felt
Meanwhile, Mike Freeman’s book from last fall, Football’s Fearless Activists is more about Kaepernick and his fellow protestors in the NFL, functioning as a primer and analysis of that ad hoc movement. Throughout the book, Freeman’s experience as a longtime NFL reporter serves him well as he is able to get good insights and quotes from NFL insiders that offer new information on the protests, especially in light of the NFL settling with Kaepernick following his lawsuit against the league.
For example, he quotes an anonymous owner as saying, “Most of the other owners were terrified of him… They looked at Colin and the protests, some owners did as a threat to their revenue model.” It’s not necessarily surprising to hear an owner reveal that many of his fellow owners “just hated him,” but there is value in seeing it confirmed. If this was said to a reporter (though anonymously) then one can only imagine what was said behind closed doors.
With the general outline of the story already being well known, it is these subtle additions that make Freeman’s book memorable, such as when he describes Kaepernick telling rookies who wanted to protest alongside him to focus on their careers instead since he did not want them to have to suffer the same potential blackballing that he did in fact face.
The irony is that now, in light of last summer’s massive wave of protests following the murder of George Floyd, kneeling for the national anthem has stopped being a countercultural act of resistance, but a socially sanctioned (and oftentimes encouraged) move. For example, in the 2020 NBA Bubble, the players who did not kneel during the anthem were the exception. While, in one sense, this vindicates the protests begun by Kapernick and followed by so many others, in another, it defangs it.
If protest is meant to disrupt and lead to concrete change, what does it mean when those in power co-opt the language and symbolism of the protestors? This is something Mi’Chael Wright, a basketball player at UC Santa Barbara profiled in Zirin’s book, expresses concern about. When asked if she feels vindicated by last summer’s protests, she says that she feels “a little bit of ‘I told you so’ but also ‘I don’t believe you.’ Not that people speaking out now isn’t important, but it’s a fad. It’s easy. It’s expected.” Are such visible signs evidence of genuine growth and progress or a phase that has already passed?
It is unclear what comes next. What forms will speaking out against racism and police brutality take in the future, and how can athletes reclaim a radical edge without their aims being co-opted? It is important to remember that what made Kaepernick so brave was not the gesture itself, but the clarity and forcefulness of his critiques along with his willingness to risk his career for the sake of justice. As Freeman writes, “There is a disturbing and frightening part of this story. It’s that the NFL wanted to teach players a lesson: take too bold a step and you will pay a price.” Even though the NFL has said many of the right things in the last year and a half, it’s hard to believe this lesson no longer applies.
Both of these books help fill in the broader outline of the movement that Kaepernick started, what it represented, and how it inspired others. With their different focuses, they complement each other well and will be of interest to anyone interested in the intersection of sports and social justice. Together, they serve as a tribute to the men and women who forced millions of people to consider the lethal combination of racism and police brutality in ways they had not done before, as well as a reminder of the work that remains to be done.