Photo of Colin Kaepernick courtesy of Denis Poroy / Associated Press.
After being the most controversial figure in sports last year for protesting the national anthem to speak out against police brutality and racial inequality, Colin Kaepernick has reportedly decided to switch things up.
ESPN reported this week that Kaepernick has decided to stand for the anthem in the 2017-2018 NFL season. Last year, he told reporters that he would continue to kneel for the anthem until he saw substantial progress toward solving racial inequality. His reason for standing next season, according to ESPN, is to avoid distracting from the cause.
Kaepernick’s decision to kneel for the anthem last season indisputably brought awareness to the issue of police brutality in a way that other activists couldn’t. He was arguably the biggest sports story of the year, and he inspired other athletes to follow suit in their own ways. But he hasn’t simply given symbolic gestures or inspired other people. He has put his money and his time where his mouth is: he has donated $1 million of his money from his salary and revenue from his increased jersey sales to community organizations fighting racial inequality, donating his massive sneaker collection to charity, and hosting a ‘Know Your Rights’ camp for Bay Area children.
But there was consistent pushback because of his protest method. Many people, blinded by their privilege, disregarded what he had to say on the basis of him deciding to kneel for the anthem instead of standing. Despite him clearly articulating his support for the military – especially black military servicepeople – him kneeling for the anthem was seen as being disrespectful to soldiers who risked their lives for the country. For some, it truly was a distraction from hearing anything else that was said. For others, it was an excuse for them to continue ignoring the truth because they didn’t like the way it was spoken to them.
This was Kaep’s sixth season in the NFL, but he was a rookie as an activist. He certainly had a great year, but he also had first year lessons to learn: how a Fidel Castro t-shirt and socks that depict police as pigs might cloud his message, or how his admittance that he refused to vote in the latest presidential election would make him appear as someone who wasn’t truly dedicated to the cause. Many activists have to figure out the balance between being unafraid to make dissenters upset while speaking the truth, and how to appeal to them in a way that will get them to hear and understand the cause that the activists are championing. Some critics have accused Kaepernick of selling out, as softening his stance since he needs a new NFL contract. Others think he’s simply backing down during a Trump presidency, which has already begun to spout pro-police, anti-protester policies and rhetoric.
With this approach to standing alongside his teammates for the anthem instead of kneeling, Kaepernick is continuing to search for that balance. But his work last year shows that he is clearly in this for the long haul – and his spot on an NFL roster clearly makes him more valuable to the movement. So standing for the anthem helps raise the chances that Kaepernick, who is a free agent this season, will find another team to join. Losing the confrontational, unavoidable elements from kneeling may hurt some of his visibility. But maybe after having a season to complain about his kneeling, dissenters won’t have an excuse to hide under when they’re confronted with Kaepernick’s cause. Without strawman arguments, there’s less to avoid. Maybe Kaepernick will find other ways to use his place in the NFL to bring light to the issue.
Kaepernick would be joining the ranks of other activists who have decided to change up their flow to make sure his work is as potent as possible. Only time will tell if his new approach works, but what matters most is that he’s dedicating to the consistent work of figuring it out.