Colin Kaepernick’s America (Orientation)


Facilitators and students should familiarize themselves with the story by reading these entries and the text of the First Amendment below:  

Protesting racial injustice, Colin Kaepernick ignites culture wars, political feud, legal battle


Nike presents Kaepernick as the face of a new ad campaign, defying critics

For best results with this orientation module, use the introduction that follows as a chance for personal reflection and engagement, then enlarge the discussion activity first to a partner, then small group, then full class. Leave time for reflection and closure. Consider providing students your contact information for follow-up.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”


Beginning in 2016, professional football player Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, knelt during the national anthem when it was played before National Football League (NFL) games, as a means of raising awareness of racial and social inequality and protesting police brutality against minorities. After becoming a free agent, Kaepernick experienced difficulty being hired by another NFL team and formally lodged a legal case against the NFL. In 2018, Nike signed Kaepernick as a spokesperson, a decision that sparked ongoing controversy. President Donald Trump publicly condemned Kaepernick, while multiple small religious colleges canceled their contracts with Nike. Other athletes, including Megan Rapinoe, captain of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, which won the World Cup in 2019, have risen to Kaepernick’s defense.

Session Objectives (5 min.)

  1. To understand the nuances and tensions of Free Speech and its consequences.
  2. To foster civil discourse about the role and power of Free Speech.
  3. To apply a normative understanding of Free Speech to a contemporary case.

Model Engagement (10 min.)

Toward the goal of creating “brave spaces” and microcosms of “diverse democracy,” facilitators may ask students/participants to develop “conditions” or norms for successful dialogue. Facilitators may also ask that students consider what successful dialogue sounds like in the context of their education.


Topical Introduction (15 min.)

Watch this video of Colin Kaepernick’s explanation of his decision provided by a Bay Area television station, KVTV. Pay particular attention to his argument about the power of Free Speech at time marker 4:20. 

Video Reflection and Discussion (35 min.)

In the following months of its first ad featuring Kaepernick, Nike experienced a 31% increase in online sales. Meanwhile, much social media attention was given to the perception of some that Kaepernick’s protest disrespected or even mocked those who serve in the military. In your mind, what is the role of Free Speech in a democracy? How do celebrities and corporations use their voices to engage in fruitful debate? Discuss with a partner and then share with the group. 

  1. What did you notice?
  2. What questions does this video raise? 
  3. To what historical contexts or events does this episode connect?  
  4. How does it extend questions raised by historical events?
  5. How do Kaepernick’s actions challenge us? The status quo?


Options for Discussion

Please choose from one of the three following options.

Option A

Divide the students into groups and ask each group to read one of the following articles:

Ask each group to discuss its article and then present a summary of the article to the whole class. Each group should identify the tensions the article surfaces. 

Option B

In small groups, students discuss the following question: 

  1. How can and should employees express their constitutional right to Free Speech while complying with their companies’ policies?

Share summaries with whole group.

Option C

Encourage students to examine critically the role NFL has played in this issue after reading these articles:

Discuss the criticism the organization and its leadership have faced. What are the tensions that surface here between private companies who employ highly visible individuals?

For Further discussion

  1. How do you feel about Kaepernick?
  2. Was he right?
  3. Was he wrong?

Moment of Closure & Reflection (10-15 min.)

  1. Has your thinking changed from the beginning of the session to now? Why or why not?
  2. Consider how the group interacted around this topic today. What did you notice?
  3. How might we improve our ability to engage in civil discourse in U.S. society?


Lewis, Anthony. Freedom for the Thought that We Hate.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty (Ch. 2: “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” and Ch. 4: “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual”).

Fish, Stanley. “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too,” Ch. 8 in a book of essays by the same name, pp. 102-119, published by Oxford University Press in 1994.