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

In August 2016, National Football League (NFL) quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem at a preseason NFL game to protest racial injustice and police brutality, igniting a phenomenon that would not only question the role of political protest in sports, but also pit Free Speech against patriotism and turn a protest for racial justice into a flashpoint for political anger.

Key Players

Colin Kaepernick is a professional American football player who last played for the San Francisco 49ers from 2011 to 2016. Beginning in 2016, he garnered national attention and both widespread praise and criticism for his decision not to stand during the national anthem at NFL games. Before long, Kaepernick’s activism against white supremacy and police violence became a national phenomenon, inspiring other such demonstrations and touching off a yearslong legal battle and culture war.

Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Roger Goodell is the current commissioner of the NFL, a role he has held since 2006.

Further Details

Though the national anthem has been played at NFL games as far back as 1945, NFL players did not stand on the field while it was played or sung at the start of every prime-time game until 2009; the move was just one instance of the NFL’s long affiliation with patriotism and militarism. Previously, players stood on the field during the anthem only during the Super Bowl and in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

In an interview with NFL Media, Kaepernick was asked about his decision to sit on the bench during the national anthem at an August 2016 preseason game, to which he replied,“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. … There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Kaepernick protested again during the following week’s preseason game, this time joined by then-San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid. It was at this point that Kaepernick also announced his plans to donate $1 million of his $11.9 million salary to charitable organizations, a pledge he would carry out over the next year and a half.

“Once again, I’m not anti-American,” Kaepernick said during a postgame press conference in September 2016. “I love America. … I want to help make America better. I think having these conversations helps everybody have a better understanding of where everybody is coming from.”

The NFL clarified that “players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem.” Goodell said that he did not agree with Kaepernick’s decision not to stand, according to The New York Times.

Kaepernick did, however, win the support of then-President Barack Obama, who said the quarterback was “exercising his constitutional right” and that he had “generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about,” according to The New York Times. “I also always try to remind folks that part of what makes this country special is that we respect people’s rights to have a different opinion.”

At least 10 NFL players on at least four different teams had joined Kaepernick’s protest by Sept. 12, 2016. In the subsequent weeks and months, scores of athletes, not only across the NFL but also in high school, college, and professional sports, had joined in the national anthem protest, according to The Times, either by kneeling or raising their fists during the song.

NFL players such as legendary running back Marshawn Lynch and long-time social activist Michael Bennett were among the dozens of players who joined the protest in some fashion, while certain entire teams, such as the Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks, and Tennessee Titans, held demonstrations in August 2017 as the situation escalated, either by kneeling or by staying in the locker room.

Examples from other sports included the entire roster of the Indiana Fever, a team in the Women’s National Basketball Association, and Megan Rapinoe, a forward on the U.S. women’s national soccer team, The Times reports. National Basketball Association stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant have also voiced their support of Kaepernick.

Celebrities and other notable figures have also come out in support of Kaepernick’s protest, including musician Stevie Wonder, activist Angela Davis, rapper J Cole, director Ava DuVernay, and singers John Legend and Zendaya.

Kaepernick, along with those athletes who followed his lead, continued to kneel or raise their fists throughout the 2016-17 NFL season. Kaepernick started in 11 games for the 49ers that year, performing at a respectable but subpar level for a quarterback who had led his team to the Super Bowl in 2013. In March 2017, weeks after the season ended, Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers, becoming a free agent.

By the start of the following preseason in August 2017, Kaepernick remained unsigned, even though many similarly and less accomplished free agent quarterbacks had received new contract offers. That Kaepernick’s free agency persisted despite his on-field performance led many to believe he was being blacklisted from the NFL, The Times reports.

Even without Kaepernick in the league, however, players continued to emulate his protest, some of them citing the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 as the impetus behind their own demonstrations.

On Sept. 23, 2017 — early in the 2017-18 NFL season — President Donald Trump weighed in on Twitter, bringing to the political sphere a culture war that had already been playing out in stadiums and courts across the country.

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect … our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” Trump tweeted. “If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

Trump continued his tweets the next day: “If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!” the president wrote. “NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”

Trump’s tweets seemed to exacerbate the protests. Throughout the remainder of the season, dozens of players, in addition to several team owners, knelt, raised fists, or stayed in the locker room during the national anthem, not only to continue Kaepernick’s protest of racial injustice but also to push back on Trump’s critique of the players.

With his Twitter provocations, Trump introduced a partisan facet into a clash over Free Speech. In addition to rallying his political base to oppose the league as long as it seemed to support Kaepernick, he put pressure on the football team owners to maintain favorable public sentiment by rejecting protests like Kaepernick’s.


Kaepernick files grievance against league

In October 2017, Kaepernick filed a complaint against the NFL, claiming that all 32 teams had colluded to exclude him from playing, as punishment for his protests. Under the NFL’s terms, the case went to an arbitrator to settle the dispute between the league and the National Football League Players Association.

The case proceeded to a full hearing in August 2018, as the beginning of the 2018-19 NFL season saw few players continuing to kneel during the national anthem.

NFL releases new rules barring players from kneeling

In May 2018, the NFL announced new rules that prohibited players from kneeling during the national anthem. If they did so, they would be punished (by fines and other disciplinary measures). But the new regulations allowed them to stay in their respective locker rooms during the pregame ceremonies, according to The Times. Trump weighed in soon after the new rules were announced, saying that players who do not stand for the anthem “shouldn’t be in the country,” The Times reports.

Kaepernick becomes Nike spokesperson

In September 2018, Nike signed Kaepernick as the face of its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” ad campaign, a contract reportedly worth millions of dollars a year that also led to boycotts of the company among some consumers and sellers of its products.

Kaepernick wins settlement with NFL

In February 2019, the NFL settled with Kaepernick, though it did not technically admit to blacklisting him from the league. Depositions from the case also showed team owners’ fear of Trump’s disapproval, Jemele Hill wrote in The Atlantic.

Hill worked for nearly 12 years as a sports journalist for ESPN but was suspended for two weeks in 2017 after calling Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter; Hill was removed from SportsCenter in February 2018 after suggesting fans should boycott advertisers who support the Dallas Cowboys, whose owner threatened to bench players who protested during the national anthem.

Though Kaepernick’s settlement terms were undisclosed, Hill argued that the symbolism of forcing the NFL’s hand in the case was nonetheless significant.

“It doesn’t matter how much money Kaepernick ultimately receives from the NFL,” Hill wrote. “What matters is that he bested a league that has a long history of pummeling its opposition in court, especially players.”