Colin Kaepernick, consequences, and the culture

by Langa C

Colin Kaepernick has become more than an athlete. But it’s worth appreciating that it all started because he was an athlete.

Everyone in Harlem wore a Kaepernick jersey that summer. Everyone in Brooklyn, too, it felt like — I’ll never forget the swarm of people in red, white, and gold and afros at Afropunk Festival in Commodore Barry Park that August 2016.

I thought it was beautiful, of course — a show of solidarity, a moment of collective empowerment and recognition — but I didn’t think it would last. In my mind, the jerseys and the kneeling would probably be an ephemeral phenomenon that we’d all forget about in a matter of months. And personally, I fully expected to forget his name: Colin Kaepernick, who was he to me? Now, almost exactly five years later, I’m so glad I was wrong. Kaepernick has remained not just in my vocabulary, but also as an inspiration to me and so many Black people looking to be brave, to be bold, to take a stand. But even more than that, he’s shifted my perspective on how much a person can do — and who can do it.

Colin Kaepernick brought an athlete’s sensibility to the age-old act of political protest

I’ve always been a fan of sports movies. As a writer, I love the predictable, but enamouring stories of all the classic tropes — the bildungsroman element of stories about young athletes coming of age; the heartwarming camaraderie of seemingly opposite groups learning to come together through a mutual love of the game; the charismatic leader inspiring a struggling team to victory — all of it. The tension of the lows and the triumph of the highs have always pulled at my heartstrings, gearing me up for a satisfying watching experience every time.

Sports in real life have never held me the same way. I never understood when my friends would cry over a Super Bowl loss or I would wake up to my mother screaming at the TV as she watched British Premier League football as I was trying to sleep. For me, cheering for a character has always been more exciting than cheering for a real person. In movies, you know who to root for and all the characters are defined to make a team scrappy underdogs. In real life, I didn’t feel the same empathy for the athletes. I didn’t know their stories and, without the defined 90-minute story arc, frankly, I never had the stamina to care.

There were some exceptions, some athletes I admired and respected … but even they felt like “characters” in my mind (makes sense, since most of them came from biopics or history lessons). The pivotal moments in “sports” which lived in my personal hall of fame had less to do with the actual sports than the stories behind them. There was Muhammad Ali changing his name, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, and Francois Pienaar and the Sprinboks winning the 1995 World Cup. To me, these were moments of narrative interest and that was enough, the athletic achievements themselves were symbolic at best, and sometimes felt inconsequential.

It wasn’t until 2016, as Kaepernick became synonymous with a new wave of protest, when I reflected on my tendency to dismiss the importance of sports, athletes, and fandom. I hadn’t realized how much I viewed historical figures as activists, separate from their athletic careers, focusing on their moments of protest as paramount, while belittling their chosen careers. The very vehicles of their victory and protest. This was congruent with how I thought of sports and fandom in general — peripheral, and maybe even immature compared to the “real” work of activism and protest. However, Kaepernick opened my eyes to the potential that the passion of fandom has to start conversation and ignite change in a specific and embodied way.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Though I never had one, instant epiphany, my point of view shifted gradually until one day I was walking through a room where a group of my friends were gathered and I paused to watch the game playing on the TV for a moment, asking my friends questions as I stood, staring at the tiny bodies moving gracefully across the screen. For the first time, I realized I had a real appreciation for the effort of the game, for the embodied element of watching a figure throw, catch, and predict the movements of everyone around them. Because I knew that feeling — that hypervigilance, that focus on where and how my body was moving towards and away from, that keen awareness of being perceived — but I didn’t have anything as impressive to show for it.

But what had changed?

When it became clear that Kaepernick’s 2016 kneeling protests would not just be a passing news story, I started paying close attention. Good for him, I had thought, but didn’t expect anything to come of it. A couple of soapboxes for him to stand on, a couple of newspaper articles about the national anthem.

I was more intrigued by the phenomenon which rose up around him, the overdue acknowledgment of the dated, problematic nature of the national anthem. But I didn’t expect the energy around him to last, especially not with the fervor it did.

In hindsight, I still struggle to understand exactly why Kaepernick’s impact was as resonant as it was. Even now, high-profile professional athletes find it hard to keep their momentum to protest going for more than one news cycle. In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd and the renewed energy around the Black Lives Matter protests, major basketball players began to speak out in protest by talking about potentially sitting out the season. It felt revelatory — especially since they were protesting as a collective with some of the most recognizable names at the helm. However, these protests were quickly shut down, with even people like former President Obama speaking out against them. The players went back to playing, acquiescing to the demands of the fans and the NBA and settling for jerseys and face masks with BLM logos.

In 2016, the landscape was even more fraught. When Kaepernick first took a knee in August, it was in the midst of the brutal election cycle which was about to reveal that Trumpism was more powerful than most people had imagined. Yet, with Hilary Clinton still the assumed front runner and coming off the back of Obama’s presidency, more people than now were complacent in their privilege and less willing to interrogate American structures of racism.

But Kaepernick wasn’t.

When it comes down to it, I can only attribute his continued legacy to this: his resilience. His stamina. His unwavering commitment. As Kaepernick kept up his protest, as he experienced repercussions and abuse from NFL fans and misguided “patriots,” he only seemed to get more determined.

I began to pay attention, attracted not just to the theoretical concepts of protest and patriotism, but with Kaepernick himself. What kind of man was this? Hadn’t he already proved his point? My respect for him was growing as I began to do what I always do — try to make him a character in my mind, a symbol of something I could understand. And in my mind, all that glory was divorced from his athleticism. I configured him into a canon I could understand — when Kaepernick said: “this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” I took him at his word. Yes, I thought, it’s bigger than football. But in my mind, football was already so small.

But eventually, I realized that the qualities which made him so admirable were not there despite the fact he was an athlete, but part of what made him such a good one. Part of why I’d never attached myself to sports fanaticism was because I have never been a fan of playing sports myself. Giving myself physically in an effort to win a game never appealed to me, so it never impressed me. But as I thought more about Kaepernick, read more think pieces, and talked about him with my friends, I began to see his protest as more than conceptual, but inherently physical.

His protest didn’t start with a speech or a social media post for a reason I realize. As an athlete, he used the platform he had in the way he knew best: with the stamina, grit, determination, and physical embodied effort of an athlete.

Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The emphasis on the body, I’ve realized, is important to me — the idea of giving your body to a thing, a cause or a game, and in Kaepernick’s case, both. It also spurred my thinking around how the physical action of sports and the reciprocal energy from fans mirrors the embodied nature and energy of protest. I started taking an interest in sports in a more appreciative way after the fact — not just athletes as activists, though I have kept a keen eye on that and how history will perceive them, but also appreciating the feat of the body, and the mental toughness and physical discipline that I had dismissed.

Now seems so obvious, the connection between athleticism and activism feels part and parcel to what gave Kaepernick the courage to protest despite the backlash. I have since reconceptualized my thinking around activists and idols I had previously glossed over the athletic achievements of.

More profoundly, I have changed the way I see sports. Yes, I still love a good sports film, but I can appreciate the actual game now, the people who play them, and the fans who dedicate themselves equally to them.

After all, what would Muhammed Ali’s changing name have been without the microphones and cameras and press and crowd watching him leave the ring victorious? What would the Olympic power fist have been if the world hadn’t been watching, and applauding them for their physical feats?

The stadium isn’t just the stage, I realized, it’s the vehicle. The crowd isn’t some cacophonous consequence, but it’s a gathering of passion akin to a protest.

So by the end of that Kaepernick summer, I was part of the embodied masses, all in the Kaepernick and pride — not just watching with disinterested indifference. The physicality of the game felt revelatory to me, as did the embodied act of knowing you’re seen as the pinnacle of masculinity, strength, and power — then taking your body down to kneel. Just the thought of it brings me to my knees.

Everyone was surprised when I started watching sports with more than a sneer and an air of indifference. And while I still don’t count myself a fanatic, I pay attention, I hope they catch the toss, score the goal, make the basket. And I remember they’re real people, with real lives, who can enact real change.