A Super Bowl quarterback [in 2012], Colin Kaepernick entered the  offseason advised to keep his head down and try to rescue his NFL career. Instead, with his place in the league hanging by a thread, the San Francisco quarterback used his platform to make a necessary, brave political statement in the mould of some illustrious predecessors.
Seventeen Olympic Games ago, two men stood on a podium to celebrate the greatest moment in their sporting careers. The American flags were raised, the familiar strains of The Star-Spangled Banner played out across the Mexico City night sky and Tommie Smith and John Carlos defiantly raised their fists in protest against racial discrimination to produce one of the most iconic images in history.
The ‘Black Power Salute’ saw the men who won 200m gold and bronze ostracised back home; they struggled for work, battled depression and received death threats. Smith and Carlos’ lives would never be the same, not that they would change a thing about that fateful night in 1968.
Two months before Colin Kaepernick took a stand, or knee as it were, the sporting world was mourning the loss of its brightest star, the inimitable Muhammad Ali. He was an undisputed great in his discipline, as Pele was and Usain Bolt is, but his legacy extended far beyond the sport of boxing, which ensures he will leave a considerably greater imprint on the planet than anyone who has ever competed in an athletic capacity.
He denounced his “slave name”, challenged the authorities by refusing to fight in a war he did not agree with and fought for social justice throughout his life. By resisting his call-up to the Vietnam War, Ali was stripped of his belt and robbed of three years of his prime. It is easy to look back posthumously as many observers did recently and laud Ali for his desire to stand up for his cause but, at the time, he did not garner such widespread admiration: the fledgling star lost out on millions of dollars, the peak years of his career and was even facing jail.
Kaepernick is not an Olympic medallist, nor a heavyweight champion of the world. He isn’t even a starting quarterback, but he does have a platform as one of the most recognisable figures playing football. In the build-up to this summer’s Games in Rio, bronze medallist Carlos insisted other sports stars should speak up about the recent race issues in America, citing their status as influential figures in society and how their views would carry the most traction because of their standing.
Kaepernick answered the bell.
One wonders if the quarterback, whose decision not to stand during the national anthem in the preseason was clearly thought-out, considered how Smith, Carlos and Ali’s protests were perceived when they were made half a century ago. For today’s sports stars, media-trained from a high-school age, often find it easier to follow the crowd, to pick up their multi-million-dollar endorsement deals and ensure they are only remembered for sporting achievements. Don’t risk speaking about an issue you feel strongly about – then nothing changes. The sponsors don’t get uneasy, the brand is untainted, the team keeps you on board and the unwavering fanbase retains its adulation.
Kaepernick should, therefore, be applauded for exercising his right to showcase his views on a topic he, and many other Americans in less high-profile positions, feel so strongly about. He did so in a non-threatening, yet powerful way, making a stand in a patriotic moment in the most patriotic of countries. And amid the predictable backlash, it was so refreshing to see his jersey top the NFL’s best-seller list – with the quarterback already pledging to plough that money back into the communities – and to see numerous other NFL players, including Eric Reid, Jeremy Lane and Brandon Marshall, join him in shows of solidarity in the coming games. There was support, too, from President Barack Obama, the type of backing that those who previously held strong views were not afforded. For example, only 20 years ago basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was suspended by the NBA for refusing to stand for the national anthem.
As brave as Kaepernick’s move was, he must also accept that he will now be heavily scrutinised, not just by NFL observers but social commentators, even if he does start the season on the bench. Should Kaepernick get cut in the near future, other teams may, sadly, be wary of accepting him on their roster, and there will always be those rooting for his demise because of this.
You get the sense [he] accepts all of that and is prepared to ride whatever storm comes his way. Sport is an incredibly strong vehicle to impact social life. In taking a knee, Kaepernick has at least got the world discussing the issue – and that can only be a good thing. His simple ‘silent gesture’, both as powerful and non-provocative as any message Kaepernick could have delivered, has helped invoke conversations about race relations which certain sections in America would happily sweep under the carpet. Maybe in 50 years’ time, Kaepernick will be remembered as Smith, Carlos and Ali are, even if his sporting feats never emulate what those men managed to accomplish. More power to you, Colin.