How does a second string quarterback for a losing team with a coach, who says he's not even ready to play, come off actually starting a new form of dialog across America on racial justice under our system of law enforcement? He is being booed and pilloried by seemingly everyone from Presidential candidates to the owner of the Dallas Cowboys? And isn't fitting that Kaepernick's team is the San Francisco 49ers, at least nominally from the same city whose former Mayor Gavin Newsome also took his share of boos and catcalls when he challenged on the established view that gay couples had no right to a civil marriage and began issuing marriage licenses to them without specific authority?
Taking a knee is an unusual way to take a stand, but the quarterback's silent audible during a pre-game National Anthem was a highly visible (and high-risk) strategy to break through complacency against an unconscious bias. Specifically in policing that profiles blacks and other people of color as being inherently more likely to pose threats to life and limb than white people in exactly the same circumstances. Kaepernick's gesture was itself met with death threats, and roundly critiqued by sports analysts as an attempt to divert attention from a sagging career and as a divisive and destructive force in the team's locker-room chemistry; by police associations as an affront that merited a "strike" in terms of voluntary security provided for 49er games at their Santa Clara stadium; by military veterans and supporters as disrespectful of their service to the country; by the National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell as well as team executives like Dallas Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones; and some (but notably not many) NFL players; by 49er fans who burned his jersey to show their displeasure; and by politicians like Donald Trump who called for Kaepernick to leave the country.
Sports talk shows were filled with talk that Kaepernick was finished as an NFL player, would never be signed by another team and that his own general manager was eager to trade or get rid of him.
The cheers for the bench-warming quarterback (he ironically first made his stand by remaining seated during the anthem) were few and far-between, mostly concentrated among adherents of the "Black Lives Matter" movement and a few equally outspoken athletes, but also from America's first black President, who both defended Kaepernick's right of expression and acknowledged that his complaint has substantive merit. But even the President, in the final months of his term, had little to lose as compared with the quarterback, who holds a multi-million dollar contract for his services on the field that effectively incentivizes his team to keep him off the field lest he become injured and thereby vest the full amount due him for this year.
Looking back, Gavin Newsom also made a career-threatening move when he took the unprecedented step for a big-city mayor (and technically an act of civil disobedience) of officially sanctioning gay marriages by issuance of marriage licenses. His risk was not so much in terms of his position in San Francisco, long viewed as a gay-friendly town, but decidedly so in the rest of California and the country, where gay marriage support at the time was polling well below 50%. Newsom's actions were at first invalidated by the the California Supreme Court, and ultimately provoked a strong negative political reaction in the form of a ballot initiative (Proposition 8) to ban gay marriage in the State, which passed easily with a 61% majority. But in the final analysis, after Proposition 8 was successfully challenged in Federal court by attorney's David Boies and Ted Olson, the United States Supreme Court ruled legal bans on gay marriage violated the US Constitution's 14th Amendment Due Process and Equal Protection clauses (as Newsom had argued in the first place).
Moreover, the Court was also reflecting the change in public attitudes reflected in the polling over a dozen years following Newsom's solitary and controversial action -- a "sweet vindication" for the previously vilified mayor -- and now Lieutenant Governor of California.
Colin Kaepernick is not running for Governor of California - he only runs on the football field and he no doubt wants to get back to his formerly prodigious skills in that regard despite the "blacklist" threats that came after he 'took a knee" to raise awareness of imbedded discrimination. Despite those threats, however, there is evidence that Kaepernick, like Newsom, has started something: The quarterback explained his views on discrimination in several press conferences, and pledged to put $1 million of his salary where his mouth is, in direct support of the minority communities.
His actions, rather than provoking universal scorn, have slowly but surely spurred a broader movement even among his football foes, which is bringing the "Black Lives Matter" themes directly into the most "mainstream" of American experience -- namely, our national obsession with sports, from the elite professional ranks on down through the high school level.
At first, only one teammate, starting safety Eric Reid, joined with Kaepernick's anthem kneel-down, in the last pre-season game. Since then, however, there has been a steady stream of athletes with even brighter current star-power than Kaepernick taking a sympathetic knee - starting with American female soccer champion Megan Rapinoe; or speaking out in media statements like 49ers arch-rival Seattle Seahawks Doug Baldwin and Richard Sherman. Mega-successful coach Steve Kerr of the Golden state Warriors record-setting pro basketball team has promised his whole team will take up the issue in the locker room and spoke with understanding of Kaepernick's action. At a recent high school game, Kaepernick himself joined an Oakland team in kneeling for the anthem.
Across the country, such displays of solidarity in protest to oppression of racial minorities at the college and high school sports level have been growing in number and location. Even in the case of politically conservative and racially homogeneous Nebraska, some players on the University's celebrated football team (Consecutive sellouts at their games since 1962!) adopted kneeling postures just like Colin Kaepernick's during the anthem.
Unfortunately, these protests triggered some of the worst examples of the very forms of prejudice and hate that the players sought to spotlight. As told by one of the players linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey, he and his Nebraska teammates who knelt during the Anthem for the game at Northwestern University received threatening Twitter and e-mail messages:
"Some believe DaiShon, Mohamed and myself should be kicked off the team or suspended, while some said we deserved to be lynched or shot like the other black people who have died recently. Another believed that since we didn't want to stand for the anthem that we should be hung before the anthem at the next game."
What the racists and even non-racists fail to realize is how little they understand what it truly feels like, for a Colin Kaepernick or Michael Rose-Ivey or any of person of color, when they are pulled to the curb in the night by an officer of the law because of a busted tail light. Until they walk in those shoes, Kaepernick and his brothers and sisters will continue to have a reason to protest, as firmly and peacefully as Newsom did, against complacency and indifference.