In 2016, Colin Kaepernick—the former San Francisco 49er quarterback player that spearheaded the team to the Super Bowl in 2013—attracted the attention of global news media. Kaepernick “willingly immersed himself into controversy” by sitting or taking a knee during the pre-game national anthem, in solidarity with, and in memory of, the victims of police brutality in the US.
Unsurprisingly, in some arenas, the response to Kaepernick’s act of protest was a barrage of backlash and cringe-worthy censures. When a person who looks like Kaepernick takes necessary actions to spread awareness in a country of ignorance, commentators determine that he is playing the “race card”.
A year after Kaepernick’s “controversial” action he remains blackballed and ostracised by NFL teams, despite confirming in an interview with Shaun King this week that he is “working out daily” and ready to play. Keeping Kaepernick off the roster (for now) has been a bold tactic for the NFL, especially when the tragic events in Charlottesville last month ramped up the intensity of debate around US race politics. Some suggest that Kaepernick’s ongoing unemployment by the NFL could be the result of collusion amongst the 32 league owners, in order to keep politics off the field.
In the democratic framework of the US, we staunchly defend freedom of speech until and unless the American military is involved – for whom everyone (it seems) has a duty and obligation to pay their respects. The punishment for not doing so is to be branded a “traitor” and “unpatriotic” and to have your character assassinated by mainstream media. At the same time, other players who have committed actual criminal offences such as driving under the influence, domestic abuse and even manslaughter act with impunity are welcomed back into their teams with open arms.
As recently as 1968 it would have been unthinkable for a black kid to aspire to blaze their trail as a quarterback, as African-Americans were not permitted to seize that particular spotlight. In an investigative piece published in April which explores the “racial divide” within the NFL bevy, authors Jason Reid and Jane McManus chronicle the barring of black players from NFL. The NFL is experiencing a slow change in the direction of travel: the NFL now comprises 70% players who are people of colour, which in theory suggests a dramatic drop in racially motivated negative bias. However, such an analysis glosses over the fact that black players are typically drafted into positions like running back, where players must be strong and durable to endure full contact hits play after play.
In contrast, the position of quarterback, the strategic “leader” of the offensive side, is historically played by white athletes. The implication, often overt, is that black players are not intelligent or analytical enough for the quarterback role. As former professional quarterback Warren Moon wrote in his 2009 autobiography: “Supposedly, we weren’t smart enough [to play quarterback] or had the leadership qualities or whatever it took”.
The game has long been criticised for the practice of racial “stacking”, whereby athletes end up over-represented in certain positions due to racial stereotypes. Until very recently—sports writer Stephen D Riley explains—white players were traditionally “touted as being able to process plays faster and quicker than their Black counterparts, while Black athletes were largely placed in the roles of running backs and wide receivers”. Last year, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton commented: “I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people […] because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.”
Reid and McManus shed light on an ongoing biased field role selection process. Despite the growing numbers of African-American players securing a wide range positions, the writers maintain that long-standing racial discrimination still steers the supposedly “meritocratic” rules overseen by predominantly white billionaires.
While the NFL management continues to skirt the issue—suggesting that there is “a time and a place” for politics—many players have followed Kaepernick’s example by sitting for the national anthem both within and across sports industries. Philadelphia Eagles defensive player Malcolm Jenkins talked candidly about raising his fist against racial injustice during last season’s pregame national anthem and garnered support from his white counterpart, Chris Long, who placed his arm around him. Jenkins said: “I think it is important to show, especially for a white male, that although these problems don’t necessarily affect you, you can still see the significance in it.”
In a YouTube video published last month, leaders and pastors from the African-American community announced an “NFL Blackout” in solidarity with the larger conversation Kaepernick has ignited. The Black Lives Matter movement have also publicly stated their boycott of the entire league in all respects and refuse to engage in football tainted by blatant white nationalism.
But is this push-back enough to shake up change from the upper reaches of the NFL? Has the multimillion-dollar industry scaled new heights to think about race, in a heated political climate?
If anything, the response to Kaepernick taking a knee starkly highlights the need for elite athletes to continue to use their position to challenge the public conscience, just as many have done before Kaepernick such as Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and, more recently, NBA and WNBA players who wore T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “I can’t breathe”, and Serena Williams who published an essay drawing attention to the race and gender pay gap.
For the most part, we are conditioned to separate entertainment from politics, and Kaepernick’s deviation from this framework has provoked dissent from his own supporters and community. Whether it’s calling him out on his hair or dismissing his protest as the act of a “tender cupcake leftist social justice warrior”, pushback against Kaepernick’s politics sends a hateful message to black folks that we must adhere to respectability politics, and be passive and grateful in the face of ongoing, deep-rooted structural racial injustice.
What offends racists and critics of Kaepernick is the simple and valid imperative to speak out against any form of discrimination and injustice in any given space. It is vital that the narrative of Kaepernick’s political expression is not co-opted by those who wish to police how we speak about racism and injustice that we experience every day. We must ensure that Kaepernick’s action does not become a cautionary tale for both fans and players about the consequences of speaking your mind.