The Kneel That Changed the World

By Jake Bencale

(Colin Kaepernick after a game against the Carolina Panthers in 2016. Image Credit: Gerry Melendez for ESPN)

Colin Kaepernick was a professional football player who played quarterback in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers. He was drafted in the second round with the 36th pick in the NFL draft and went on to play six seasons all with the 49ers. Kaepernick was one of the league’s young stars that grabbed the attention of viewers with his athleticism, size, and speed. He was known for not only throwing the football but also running it, this impressive combination led to him making a SuperBowl appearance in just his  second season in the league in 2012, as well as an NFC championship the following year in 2013.

He went on to sign a six year contract extension with San Francisco worth up to 126 million dollars in 2014, but his play slowly declined after this. He eventually lost his position as starting quarterback and became the backup to open the 2016 season. During the 2016 preseason though Kaepernick made headlines not only in the sports media world but the mainstream media as well.

In August of that year he took a knee while the America’s national anthem “The Star Spangled Banner” started to play before the football game commenced which has been a tradition in every sport for many years now. Kaepernick was questioned by reporters about why he was kneeling and he went on to say “There are bodies in the street… 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 then continued on by saying “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.” The 49ers released a statement that stayed neutral about the situation and said that it is an individual’s choice whether they choose to stand or kneel during the anthem. 

The sports media world targeted Kaepernick and attacked him quite heavily questioning his tactics to use the country’s national anthem to shine a light and spread awareness on the topic of police brutality and racial inequality. In an article from The Guardian by Bryan Armen Graham and Les Carpenter, they talk about how people in the sports media world as well as fans and prominent figures of the game are missing the entire point of his protests. at the begging of their article they talk about watching ESPN anchors debate with each other over Kaepernick’s protest and whether or not the way he went about it was correct. These analysts continued to discuss the military that is out protecting out country, and the veterans that have died while serving.

The one thing that was never discussed during the argument on ESPN, was the actual thing Colin Kaepernick was protesting about. Not once did any person bring up police brutality or racial inequality, the real reason for his protests, instead they made it about patriotism and how he was being unpatriotic and disrespectful to the country and those who protect it. People such as former NFL quarterback turned analyst Trent Dilfer, former NFL head coach Rex Ryan, and even the commissioner of the NFL Rodger Goodell all had something negative to say about what Kaepernick was doing at the time.

Dilfer tried to say he was overshadowing and hurting his team by protesting and that he should “be quiet and sit in the shadows” as a backup quarterback. Buffalo Bills head coach at the time Rex Ryan who did not name Kaepernick specifically said that he should look at the gifts we have as Americans thanks to the people serving the country, and standing for the national anthem is a way to show respect and show thanks to them. Finally, NFL commissioner Rodger Goodell is even quoted saying that he does not “necessarily agree with what he is doing”.

(Colin Kaepernick kneeling during a game in 2016 with the San Francisco 49ers. Image Credit: Ted S. Warren—AP/ )

Even with all of this going on and controversy raging around him, Kaepernick got his starting job back stepping in for an injured Blaine Gabbert and ended up playing 12 games and having his best season statistically despite the teams record since his championship game appearances. His contract was restructured during the 2016 season that reduced it to a two year deal that he had fulfilled by the end of 2016 season, with a player option for him to choose whether he wanted to stay with the 49ers or become a free agent and play for another team. He chose to opt out of his contract and enter free agency. 

Once he was officially done with the 49ers the executives such as their new head coach Kyle Shanahan and their general manager John Lynch spoke up about Kaepernick and his situation. Shanahan just touched on the fact he wanted to keep his own successful style of football when it came to his new team but he did not see Kaepernick fitting into it stylistically. Lynch went on to say that they sat down with Kaepernick and told him if he did not opt out of his contract they would release him from the team anyway, but tried to make it seem that it was mutual and went on to compliment him and how great he is at football. So Kaepernick waited for a call in free agency but it never came.

Not in the form of a starter or a backup, not one team called Colin Kaepernick or his agents to offer him a job. Still today in 2023, besides a couple workouts he has held for scouts or private workouts he has had for teams, Kaepernick has never put an NFL jersey on since the end of the 2016 season.

(Kaepernick during his open workout for NFL scouts in 2019 trying to make an NFL comeback. Image Credit: Todd Kirkland, AP)

 Kaepernick went on to file a grievance against the NFL in 2017 for alleged collusion amongst the league and its team’s owners when it came to signing Kaepernick and to keeping him out of the league. In 2019 the lawsuit was finally settled with him and the NFL with Kaepernick winning the case but is rumored to have only made less than 10 million dollars to replenish lost playing time and legal fees. Kaepernick certainly deserved to get a settlement out of the lawsuit, but the NFL should have had to pay much more than they did to Kaepernick.   

Colin Kaepernick will go down in history not for being a football player, but for an athlete that used his platform to voice his opinion. He was ridiculed and harassed by fans for being unpatriotic and that his protests were anti-military. Then president of the United States  Donald Trump even spoke out against Kaepernick’s protest and said teams should have firm punishments if a player kneels. According to an article by John Breech of CBS Sports, multiple polls show that the majority of Americans did not agree with Kaepernick’s stance and thought he was “unpatriotic”.

The sports media world through all of this has switched its stance on Kaepernick all together. During the period of 2016 when he was in the midst of protesting about racial inequality, sports media treated him quite poorly and made it seem as though he didn’t want to play football, he was just there to collect a paycheck and protest about his views. After he went unsigned in free agency sports media started to change its view and questioned why he wasn’t getting signed because he was far better than some of the starters at the time in the league, and no doubt would have been a top tier back up. While this was going on he was getting various marketing deals that the mainstream media paid no attention to such as his Nike deal for their “Just Do It’ campaign.

The sports media world once again denounced him when he sued the NFL, but other athletes in various sports were starting to kneel and the public media opinion was still mostly negative on the topic but was shifting. In 2020 with the death of George Floyd, the perspective changed completely. Sports media networks and the NFL went from denouncing what Colin Kaepernick did years earlier to completely and wholeheartedly supporting athletes kneeling and using their platform to have their voice be heard about racial inequalities in America, and the media has kept this view ever since.

The media, particularly in the sports world truly warped the entire meaning of what Colin Kaepernick’s protest was all about. He said multiple times in various interviews that he loves America, its people and has no issue with the people that serve and protect, but he was still plagued as unpatriotic and anti-military. These analysts and sports personalities never stopped to look into the true meaning of what his message was, and once the murders of people like Breonna Taylor came at the hands of the police causing national outrage and protests over three years later, they finally paid attention and listened. Now today when teams or players kneel analysts from ESPN or Fox News discuss it and great it is that athletes use their platform to speak out and stand up for what they believe in.

(Kaepernick in one of Nike’s adds for its 2018 “Just Do It’ Campaign. Image Credit: ©Nike)

Colin Kaepernick was unfortunately the only person to lose his career in sports for believing in a cause and for what he thought was right, and in the end he was right. He paved the road for many athletes to stand up and use their platform to voice their opinions, and to be role models for others to look up too. Colin Kaepernick may not be a star starting quarterback anymore, but he has left a bigger and more positive impact in this world by standing up for racial justice and equality. He truly transcended sports as well as gave a voice to those who went unnoticed in the media prior, and continues to be a leading figure in the ongoing battle for social and racial justice equality in America.