Imagine if America had heeded Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest
His story goes back to 2016, when he famously refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem. At first he sat, then later knelt, protesting against police brutality shown towards African Americans.
Before long, he was joined by teammates and then other NFL players, which caused much debate, anger and angst about the issue throughout the season and into 2017.
For Kaepernick, his intentions and justification for kneeling were clear. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” he said. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
The divisive nature of players kneeling during the anthem prompted fierce debate, which stretched to the highest office in the land, with Trump exclaiming: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired!'”
For reasons still debated today, Kaepernick soon found himself without a football club. In 2017, when he opted out of his contract and became a free agent, not one NFL team offered him a contract. This led to him filing a grievance against the NFL, accusing team owners of colluding to keep him from being signed. In 2019 he withdrew the grievance after reaching a confidential settlement with the NFL.
The extraordinary case of Colin Kaepernick was embraced by Nike in 2018, which featured the exiled footballer in a global advertising campaign celebrating 30 years of their slogan ”Just Do It”.
The ad features a close-up shot of Kaepernick with the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
The response on social media was emotional, with many people protesting Nike’s support of Kaepernick by posting videos and photos of them destroying their Nike apparel.
Once again it was Trump who led the chorus of disapproval, tweeting: “Just like the NFL, whose ratings have gone WAY DOWN, Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way? As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!”
Others, such as John Rich of the country duo Big & Rich, tweeted that his soundman, a former Marine, had destroyed a pair of white Nike socks because of the ad, accompanied by a photo of cut or ripped Nike socks. Cutting up Nike apparel and posting pictures of it on social media began to trend.
Of course, just as it was Kaepernick’s right to protest, it was also the right of many others to disagree with his actions. But it turns out the divisive response to Kaepernick’s protest was a glimpse of things to come. The emotive online response to a relatively mild-mannered, non-violent protest, much like the hot-headed comments by the President, were all so antagonistic, aggressive and divisive.
This did nothing but add more tension and anger to the division and resentment, which on reflection, makes the current scenes in America undoubtedly sad, but not at all surprising.
And as for Kaepernick, perhaps the Houston Chronicle’s sports cover said it best last Sunday. While reflecting on the current chaos engulfing America, the paper simply asked its readers to imagine what could have been: “Imagine. If we had embraced Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest and paid attention to the issue he was trying to address.”
Sam Duncan is a lecturer in sports media and business.