Before Colin Kaepernick kneeled, he sat. And this quiet action of protest was largely unnoticed until Aug. 26, 2016.
Colin Kaepernick had been sitting during the national anthem prior to the 49ers' preseason games in the 2016 season, but no one noticed until San Francisco beat writer Jennifer Lee Chan captured the infamous photo that started it all.
Kaepernick can be seen in the photo sitting on a sideline bench during the national anthem ceremony. A day later, the photo went viral on social media and was picked up by local and national media outlets.
His explanation for his action was simple: to protest racial inequality and the oppression of Black people in America.
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color," he told NFL Media in an interview after the game. "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."
Days later during the 49ers' road game on Sept. 1, 2016, Kaepernick knelt during the anthem rather than sitting. His decision was advised by teammate and former Green Beret Nate Boyer, who has since reacted to comments that are in opposition to Kaepernick's actions in support of kneeling to raise awareness for racial inequality and social justice.
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Colin Kaepernick, and 49ers teammates Eli Harold (58) and Eric Reid, kneel in protest during the playing of the national anthem on Oct. 6, 2016. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
Having garnered attention from former President Barack Obama, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and President Donald Trump, since he first kneeled, Kaepernick entered the new year, playing his final down in the NFL on Jan. 1, 2017.
Fast forward to 2020, and we are certainly not far removed from the impact of Kaepernick's Aug. 26, 2016 protest. His protest continues to influence how athletes express their desire for change and Kaepernick was not the last athlete to take a knee during the national anthem from that point on.
We are in the midst of an unprecedented time in our nation's history, including the ongoing high-profile cases of the killings of Black Americans. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rasard Brooks and, more recently, Jacob Blake, are at the center of conversations about unjust deaths and police brutality. These conversations have challenged the way we see America's history of systemic oppression and racism.
With months of protests and demonstrations around the country, and the Black Lives Matter movement still captivating the nation, the upcoming NFL season is expected to bring themes of athletes being unwavering in their fight for social justice and change, as well as heighten opposition to any form of protest during the national anthem.
But things seem to be changing.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell expressed regret Sunday for the league not listening to Colin Kaepernick in 2016 when he peacefully protested.
"What our players are doing is being mischaracterized. These are not people who are unpatriotic. They're not disloyal. They're not against our military," Goodell said on Emmanuel Acho's social media video series "Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man." "What they were trying to do is exercise their right to bring attention to something that needs to get fixed. That misrepresentation of who they were and what they were doing was the thing that really gnawed at me."
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was asked Tuesday about a game in 2017 in which he joined Cowboy players in kneeling before the anthem and then stood for the playing of the anthem.
"That, at the end of the day, was a recognition that we supported our players," Jones said in a radio appearance on 105.3 The Fan. "I knelt with our players, as you know, on a personal basis. But as a team, we all knelt together before the anthem and then we stood for the anthem to recognize what its symbol is to America. I thought that was good. That’s the kind of thing that we’ll be looking to see if we can implement."
Although racial inequality in America is much older than Aug. 26, 2016, this date in sports history bench marked a time that will continue to lie at the intersection of sports, politics and racial identity. And with the current state of social unrest in our country today, the upcoming NFL season will presumably present many more historical moments.
Contact Analis Bailey at [email protected] or on Twitter @analisbailey.
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