For those who don’t follow the American National Football League (the NFL), the seemingly endless struggle between NFL players who demand the right sit, (or kneel) out the American national anthem has had weekly rekindlings, as policies change, revert, and now outside parties, such as Nike and Donald Trump, try to weigh in and capitalize on this political debacle. Who was the first to kneel though, and what in his past made him the enigmatic character that today is fighting an anti-collusion case against the NFL for being kept out of a league position?
Colin Kaepernick was born in 1987 to a white mother in Milwaukee, and his African-American father left before he was even born. He was put up for adoption, and grew up in a home with two older children, raised by a couple who had lost two other children to heart conditions.
As an infant he lived in Wisconsin, before moving to Turlock, California, and growing up as a star student athlete, playing basketball, baseball, and football. A prodigious athlete, after highschool he was noticed mostly for his baseball prowess, and was actually drafted to play with the Cubs. He was offered a football scholarship by only one school, the University of Nevada, whose head coach had watched his stellar performance and perseverance at a basketball game that Kaepernick played with a 102°F fever (39°C). He ultimately would turn down the MLB, instead choosing to go to the University of Nevada, where he would go on to become team MVP twice, and become one of the most active players in the NCAA.
Growing up in Turlock, a town with an African American population that hovers around two percent, and often looked at strangely as a mixed-ethnicity child with his white adoptive family, the cultural difference was immense coming to Nevada, which has both a heavier mixed-race and Hispanic population. Supplanting that, he joined a football team with that was certainly significantly more ethnically diverse than the teams he played for in small town Turlock. As a mixed-race athlete, student, and young man away from home, he received equally mixed treatment from those around him, with some African Americans unable to identify with someone who had grown up in a white home, and from some whites because he was a “black” quarterback, typically rarer.
Whilst at the University of Nevada, he joined a historically black fraternity, but only in his senior year. Busy with athletics, and his academics, at which he maintained solid grades, he sacrificed a significant amount of time and freedom to join this group, perhaps to gain a better sense of his racial identity. In this process, not only did he expose himself to a deeper sense of the history of African Americans, he started to redefine his identity and started a process of slowly politicizing his racial identity.
Always deeply Christian, and focused on his athleticism and his family, the change can be tracked through his public persona, starting in 2015. His persona slowly transformed from his previously neutral, family-centric, football and pop culture dominated posts to a swath of increasingly vocal online political posts where he begins to express his support for a diverse range of issues and images from Black History Month, to Tupac, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and increasingly posts about civil rights awareness focusing on Know Your Rights, a youth camp he funds that promotes self-awareness and empowerment.
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Behind the scenes in his private life, though, what changed within him across the trajectory of his NFL career? A piece by Amir Hasan Loggins gives one account claiming his own influence over Kaepernick, which started through his friendship with Kaepernick’s partner, Nessa, who herself is an extremely political figure. According to Loggins, his relationship started with giving a very curious thoughtful athlete some reading suggestions, and progressed to Kaepernick auditing his class. During this time, Kaepernick was exposed to some of the more radical thinkers and activists of Black empowerment literature, and it may have given him the push to become more assertive in his activism.
His partner, Nessa Diab, of Egyptian-Arab and African American heritage, also has likely played some role in Kaepernicks political transformation. An influential radio show host that has publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement, she has worked in hip hip radio across the Bay Area, Phoenix, and New York, and her background naturally complements the political ideology of African American empowerment. However, her public persona, especially on instragram, has never been as deeply political or controversial as Kaepernick’s, and whatever role she plays in shaping his politics, it is likely more behind the scenes, and in support of Colin’s more vocal articulation of these ideas.
As Kaepernick’s activism increased, at the height of the 2016 wave of killings and Black Lives Matter, he began his most acute form of political activism simply, with an act of passive protest. He refused to stand for the pregame national anthems at games. Sometimes sitting out, sometimes kneeling, once fans noticed, his actions immediately set off a wave of controversy.
He’s actually done it all preseason. No one noticed. First time in uniform was last night. https://t.co/rkNrPgHZrz
— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) August 27, 2016
When asked about it, his answer was as clear as day:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
His decision rankled the team, fans, and NFL officials, but he took the full brunt of the criticism, saying:
“This is not something that I am going to run by anybody,” he said. “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed… If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
The issue became a national controversy, commented on by everyone who has a stake in the cultural debate that is playing out, with the NFL now acting as a stage His foil in this has become American president Donald Trump, who supports penalization of such behaviors, and in all likelihood speaks on this because it plays into the notion of a cultural clash between conservatism and patriotism, and a movement of urban cultural revisionism that many of Trump’s followers claim they are threatened by. Trump would prefer, as has been the historical case, that sports remains an apolitical field, and that athletes are paid to perform, but should keep their personal lives and opinions out of the game.
…..Be happy, be cool! A football game, that fans are paying soooo much money to watch and enjoy, is no place to protest. Most of that money goes to the players anyway. Find another way to protest. Stand proudly for your National Anthem or be Suspended Without Pay!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 10, 2018
After the 2016 season, Kaepernick became a free agent, and has not been resigned since to any team.
From his supporters perspective, the league is possibly colluding to prevent him from being resigned, and individual teams are avoiding the controversy that would be lit by signing him.
For his detractors, in a league where most teams already have 2-3 quarterbacks, it’s possible that no teams have the cash or desire to sign a player who they claim is second tier, lambasting both his play and behavior as potentially damaging to any team who would take him on.
Regardless of the trajectory of Kaepernicks future career, whether in sports or politics, he’s managed to make a massive statement that athletes don’t need to remain on the sidelines simply acting as paid performers, and passive participants in world events. They can also have political opinions and express them, though sometimes at the cost of their careers.
But just as political blacklisting affected many who worked in the film industry in the 1950s, perhaps a change will take place in acceptance of athletes who very publicly make political statements, and this will become normalized. Until then, though, Kaepernick has made a significant sacrifice for his beliefs, and instead of being another forgotten NFL quarterback who finishes out a career before middle age in a state of tired obsolescence, he will be a prominent figure of this era. Whether one loves or hates him, he is emblematic of a difficult time in American politics, and of the timeless choice between staying silent, or acting on ones values, and giving up everything.
Staff writer: Ari B, PhD student at Taiwan’s National Sun Yat Sen University
Photo: Unsplash/Adrian Curel