San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest has been discussed ceaselessly in the months since he first began kneeling for the national anthem. Although Kap’s protest by no means sparked the conversation and debate on police brutality and social inequality, his celebrity status within a sport watched and loved by millions of Americans has certainly brought the issue to a number of people who would have been unconcerned with it otherwise.
“Thus far, Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem for three months has amounted to nothing more than talk about systemic racial inequality in this country we all know has been there,” wrote Evan Grossman of the New York Daily News. Although Grossman makes many good points about the protest throughout the article published two days ago, I think he is holding Kaepernick to a much higher standard than what is realistic for someone in his position.
For one, not everyone in the country is fully aware of the racial and social injustices that take place every day, as Grossman says. Just because the topic has garnered much more national attention in recent years, it doesn’t mean that everyone is automatically informed on it.
Second, when he began his protest, Kaepernick never held himself up as the proverbial figure that would lead America out of its current state and into the promised land of eternal racial equality and social justice. In my mind, his goals have been very clear from the beginning: bring awareness to this important issue and further the discourse on it, hopefully trying to incite change. Kaepernick is not trying to singlehandedly solve the problem of racial inequality, nor has he stated that as his goal. His protest hasn’t “amounted to nothing,” as Grossman says. The fact that he wrote a thorough article examining the issue is proof that it has amounted to something. Kaepernick has moved the conversation along for scores of Americans that wouldn’t have noticed it otherwise.
I’ve already discussed how I feel about the “he’s unpatriotic and hates America” line of criticism aimed at Kaepernick, so I won’t touch on it in this article. However, other critical voices have emerged in the past week or two that I find to be interesting. Most notably, NBA player Carmelo Anthony and former NBA player-turned-commentator Charles Barkley spoke up, with their criticism falling more into the “less gestures more action” camp.
It is unreasonable for people like Anthony and Barkley, who have both been enormously successful throughout their careers and who have both done important charity work, to criticize Kaepernick for trying to advance the same cause they are. They seem to be unaware of the important tangible contributions Kaepernick has made to this cause. He and the 49ers recently pledged to contribute $1 million to the San Francisco Foundation and the Silicon Valley Foundation with the intention of helping local communities tackle some of the challenges Kaepernick is trying to bring to light. Anthony and Barkley also don’t seem to be aware of the equally important intangible advances Kaepernick has made for their common goals of fighting racial injustice and helping communities in need. His protest has helped to bring the conversation to scores of people it otherwise wouldn’t have touched. I can’t seem to remember the last time either of the NBA personalities’ actions brought this much attention to issues both they and Kaepernick care about.
Some may ask why this act of protest has garnered so much attention as opposed to the numerous other less-publicized demonstrations by professional athletes in recent years. For starters, take a look at the demographics of NFL viewership. In 2013, according to opendorse.com, 77 percent of NFL viewers were white, 65 percent were male, and 15 percent were black. In the same year, the NBA catered to a significantly larger African-American audience (45 percent), compared to 40 percent white viewers. The NBA also has a higher percentage of African-American players than the NFL. Additionally, the NFL caters to an older and potentially less tolerant or open-minded audience, while the NBA is watched most by members of the 18-34-year-old demographic.
Based on who watches and plays in the NBA, it’s quite possible that demonstrative actions by those players have been historically much easier to swallow by their fans. For the mostly white, mostly older population that watches the NFL, Kaepernick’s protest probably comes off as alien and threatening because they are less likely to be informed about the issues he is protesting.
At the end of the day, Kaepernick is a quarterback who just three years ago led his team to the Super Bowl in an impressive run, only to fall to the Baltimore Ravens in a storybook ending for linebacker Ray Lewis. He is now the backup quarterback (although he got his first start last weekend) for the second-worst team in football. Following the departure of former 49ers Head Coach Jim Harbaugh, who many credit for Kaepernick’s success, and a slew of nagging injuries, Kaepernick simply isn’t the player he once was and he isn’t on the team he once led. His switch to veganism may have earned him some more social justice points, but it certainly hasn’t made bulking up any easier for him, either.
I think the protest and the talk it has generated is a well-calculated move by Kaepernick. He’s fading from the spotlight he once occupied, and it’s likely that his best days as a player are behind him. In the twilight of his relevance on the field, he has decided to bring light to an issue he feels strongly about in a way that is provocative and sure to start a discussion. Just as a red supergiant star ends its massive and luminous being by going supernova in a glorious and violent stellar explosion, Kaepernick has seized on his fleeting moments of stardom to fade away in a manner he sees as meaningful. You can’t say that Kaepernick hasn’t changed anything. Take a look around, and it’s clear that he already has.