NFL American football star Colin Kaepernick brought attention to Black Lives Matter’s protests about police brutality towards African Americans with his silent protests, kneeling instead of standing when “The Star-Spangled Banner” played before NFL games. Two years on, Kaepernick has been frozen out of the football league but has won two major human-rights awards for his actions, and is now fronting a new Nike advert.
Kaepernick started his protests at the beginning of the 2016-17 National Football League season. There had been a series of incidents in which African American men had died when stopped by the police, highlighted by Black Lives Matter and leading to mass demonstrations.
American football is the most popular sport in the country and many players are African American. Matches start with the national anthem. Players normally stand for the anthem. Kaepernick, a quarterback with the San Francisco 49ers refused to stand. He kneeled down, or “took a knee”. When asked about it, he said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses people of color.”
Other players joined his protest. Professional NFL players but also high-school and college teams. This was in the midst of the Presidential campaign and Donald Trump spoke out against the protests, demanding that NFL team owners fire the protesting players.
At the end of the season, Kaepernick’s contract wasn’t renewed. No other team has come forward to sign him, a Super-Bowl-winning player. In October 2017, Kaepernick’s lawyers filed a case against the NFL claiming the team owners had colluded in keeping him off the field.
Supporting Social Justice
Kaepernick, of mixed heritage, was adopted by a white couple who already had two sons. He grew up in a loving middle-class family. But he faced casual racism outside the family circle, even as a football star and brilliant student. He set about studying civil-rights history and African culture.
Kaepernick donated $1 million from his salary in the 2016 season to small charities working for social justice. He has a foundation Kaepernick7, and organises camps for teenagers from poor communities. The camps are called “Know Your Rights” and raise teenagers’ awareness about their legal rights, education and financial education.
Kaepernick and Ali
In 2017, Colin Kaepernick received the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. Muhammad Ali (1946-2016), Olympic and World champion boxer was equally known for his work for civil rights, and opposing the Vietnam War. Born Cassius Clay, he changed his name when he joined Malcolm X’s Nation of Islam movement. He sacrificed his sporting career for his beliefs, refusing to be conscripted to serve in the Vietnam War on religious grounds. For three years he was banned from boxing, before making a comeback. Every year, Ali’s family and Sports Illustrated magazine give the Legacy Award to a sportsperson in recognition of their sportsmanship, leadership and philanthropy to try to change the world.
In 2018, human-rights charity Amnesty International gave Kaepernick its annual Ambassador of Conscience Award for his “exceptional courage”. In his acceptance speech, he said, “This is an award that I share with all of the countless people throughout the world combating human-rights violations.” And he quoted Malcolm X: “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”
Advertising to the Rescue
No NFL team may be willing to employ Kaepernick but he is now the face of a new Nike advertising campaign with the slogan, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” The video ad will air at NFL matches and during coverage of them. Kaepernick narrates the two-minute ad, before appearing with his trademark afro.
Is this commercial opportunism or social conscience on the part of the sports company? Probably a bit of both. To be fair, Nike had stood by Kaepernick, not cancelling his sponsorship deal. And the company obviously knew that the choice to highlight Kaepernick was as likely to attract criticism from public opinion as support. (President Trump has been outspoken in his criticism of Kaepernick’s protests and his supporters have already started posting videos of themselves burning Nike products.)
They are presumably relying on the old adage, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” For their clothes, or for Kaepernick’s protests.
Find more on the theme of standing up for your rights through sport in Speakeasy Files 3e: Jackie Robinson, John Carlos and Tommy Smith, Mia Hamm and more.
And don’t miss our Ready to Use Resource on Kaepernick’s protests, along with high-school students refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
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> Martin Luther King Day on the Web
> Protesting for Change
> Civil Rights: The Montgomery Bus Boycott
> Martin Luther King Slideshow