Many years from now, maybe when we’re watching the LeBron James version of “The Last Dance,” this will all seem like one smooth unbroken narrative: Colin Kaepernick kneels to protest police brutality, and soon afterward the Milwaukee Bucks walk out on a playoff game.
But living in the moment, we know that’s not the case. We know there were four long years between Kaepernick’s statement and the Bucks’ decisive action, four years in which so little changed that Milwaukee players felt they had no choice but to leap beyond rhetoric and symbolic gestures.
Soon after the Bucks’ strike, players from nearly half a dozen different leagues, ranging from soccer to football to tennis, all walked off their own fields or courts. Players in historically apolitical sports like baseball decided not to play, and even golf — golf! — made a statement in support of protests.
Why now? Why did a protest far more extreme than simple kneeling break wide where Kaepernick’s flickered out?
The answer is simple: solidarity. Safety in numbers. You can cancel out one player. You can’t cancel out every sport.
Kaepernick’s protest began so humbly that no one even realized it was happening when it began. The first time he protested during the national anthem, nobody said anything.
It was during a 2016 preseason game — media reports from that time can’t even pinpoint which one — and Kaepernick silently sat during the national anthem to protest police brutality. (He would later begin kneeling after consultation with Green Beret and former NFL player Nate Boyer.)
Kaepernick’s protest finally broke wide on Aug. 26, 2016, when he spoke to NFL Media’s Steve Wyche. Right from the jump, he made his stance clear:
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick said at the time. "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."
Kaepernick’s kneeling was the most peaceful, non-disruptive protest possible, a silent, solitary, immobile 90 seconds before kickoff. You remember what happened next. He got mocked. Derided. Obliterated. And, eventually, cast aside.
The narrative lasered in on the facts of the protest, not the reason behind it. Critics focused on minutiae and missteps — the socks he once wore depicting cops as pigs, his failure to vote in 2016 — rather than engage with his message. They complained that he should be protesting on his own time, away from the stadium. They fixated on the timing of his message, during the national anthem, and used that to deem Kaepernick disrespectful and unpatriotic — despite the fact that this nation was born out of protest. Some completely missed the entire point of a protest, arguing that as a millionaire, Kaepernick didn’t have anything to complain about.
Anything to avoid actually listening and confronting the issue for which Kaepernick knew he was risking his career.
"I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed,” he said in August 2016. “If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right."
Few players in the NFL, and even fewer in other sports, joined Kaepernick’s protest. When a wave of players eventually took a knee in the 2017 season, it was more as a show of defiance against President Donald Trump than in support of Kaepernick, who was at that point already unemployed.
The end result was that Kaepernick, standing alone, became a punching bag. A punch line. A target. His very name is a lightning rod, a red flag that boils blood every time it waves in front of sports fans.
There’s no rational discussion to be had about Kaepernick anymore, no undecided voters, no gray area. You’re with him or against him, and that’s the end of that. Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s late conversion, acknowledging at last that the NFL should have at least listened to Kaepernick, is unlikely to change any minds.
As with his protests, Kaepernick has largely remained silent in his post-NFL days. He has given large sums of money to a range of charitable causes, most notably a $1 million pledge shortly after his protests began. More recently, he donated $100,000, through his Know Your Rights Camp, to help address COVID-19 issues in minority communities. For whatever reason, he has remained largely out of the public eye, conducting few interviews over the past four years.
Other high-profile athletes have picked up that ball, though, and run for big gains. Many athletes have grown visibly emotional as they discuss social justice and their own experiences with racism. LeBron James now effectively holds a social justice seminar after every game. Tuesday night, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers put in honest, wrenching terms what it means to be a Black man in America.
"It's amazing why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back," Rivers said. “My dad was a cop. I believe in good cops. We're not trying to defund the police and take all their money away. We're trying to get them to protect us, just like they protect everybody else.”
That statement of open, pure honesty would have made Rivers every bit the target Kaepernick was four years ago. Now? It’s one more voice in a chorus that’s growing louder by the day, one that critics can’t drown out as easily as they did Kaepernick.
You can scoff that Kaepernick wasn’t good enough to play in the NFL; you can’t say the same about Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo in the NBA. You can smirk that nobody cares about the ratings-challenged NBA, but you can’t say the same thing about the NFL. The excuses, the dodges, the reasons to avoid looking at the true issue at the heart of the protests get flimsier and more absurd with every player, every team that follows in Kaepernick’s wake.
To those seeking to end police brutality and bring a new measure of racial justice and equality to America, it’s clear that kneeling didn’t work. Black Lives Matter T-shirts didn’t work. NBA-approved slogans and sanitized press releases didn’t work. So now the movement has gone from statement to action, from silent protest to defiant, definitive, ground-shaking walkout.
Will this work? That’s yet to be determined, but whatever happens next, athletes will be doing it together. One athlete is a single voice. Hundreds are a movement.
Colin Kaepernick knelt alone so the Milwaukee Bucks, and all the teams that followed in their wake, didn’t have to.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee, and contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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