The Kaepernick Effect: a story of the other athletes who kneeled in protest

In his new book, Dave Zirin explores the ripple effect of the NFL quarterback’s protests, and how he inspired activists at all levels of American sports

Colin Kaepernick no longer waits for the call to rejoin the NFL. Five years have passed since Kaepernick first sat, then took a knee, during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice in America. Four years have passed since Kaepernick was ousted from the NFL for his peaceful demonstration. He has never been invited back, despite remaining in top playing shape and possessing the talent to be on a roster.

Kaepernick’s work in the aftermath of his protest transcended football, and he is still as busy as ever. He has written books: one on on criminal justice, and another for children. And he has partnered with acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay to create a Netflix docuseries that debuts on 29 October with a focus on his teenage years and the upbringing that framed his social conscience. While Kaepernick is no longer part of the daily news cycle, his legacy has evolved, a legacy captured in the new book, The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World by Dave Zirin, one of America’s preeminent voices on the intersection of sports and politics.

“I think Colin Kaepernick is quite comfortable letting 2016 speak for itself and passing the baton to a new generation of people,” Zirin says. His idea for the book was rooted in the young athletes who followed Kaepernick and took a knee. He was concerned they would be forgotten in history books that would instead tell only the story of Kaepernick, the NFL and the interference from Donald Trump.

“I feared we would forget Colin Kaepernick’s great contribution was providing a method of struggle for athletes fed up with police brutality and racial inequality,” Zirin says. “He provided a key that someone as an individual could start a conversation in their community and start to organize for change as an athlete.”

Zirin’s quest to share the experiences of the athletes who followed Kaepernick in kneeling began at the outset of the pandemic by revisiting the stories he knew and requesting, via social media, the stories he did not. His DMs were soon flooded with young athletes wanting to share the “why” behind their protests.

In The Kaepernick Effect, Zirin largely takes a back seat and presents the reader with stories of struggle and protest from high schools, colleges, and finally, professional athletes such as Megan Rapinoe and Kaepernick’s former teammate Eric Reid who was also eventually ousted from the NFL.

Zirin writes of Garfield High in Seattle, where a football player approached former NFL player Joey Thomas, then the school’s head coach, saying the team should take a knee because the Kaepernick story was blowing up. Thomas said the team would need to have a deeper conversation first.

Thomas, who is Black, grew up in Seattle’s Central District where his relationship with police sharply shifted once he evolved from cute kid to teenager. His experiences in gentrifying Seattle framed his desire to educate others.

In the book, he tells Zirin of Garfield High’s decision to mimic Kaepernick: “We talked it out. What was he doing? Why was he doing it? What does that mean to them? You know, a lot of kids said, ‘Hey man, I don’t quite understand it.’ So we talked about the national anthem’s third verse and what that third verse really means. My job is to help them become critical thinkers, not think for them.

As Zirin writes, the third verse refers to slaves who escaped bondage and joined the British Army in the War of 1812 due to promises of freedom. Francis Scott Key seemed to take pleasure in their fate with the lines: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”

The discussion affected the players and on 16 September 2016, the entire Garfield High football team took a knee. The softball team followed suit. There was mixed reaction from Garfield High administration and the community at large. There was some support but death threats also ensued, and Coach Thomas eventually left the school.

In another striking chapter of the book, a cheerleader at the University of Pennsylvania takes a knee because she already has a deep understand of systemic racism. She recalled the brother of one of the members of her church, who was shot by police in Tallahassee, Florida after being pulled over for a suspended license. She also had a keen memory of how the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 divided her hometown in Georgia.

Zirin says that Martin’s name came up time and again as he spoke to athletes for the book.

“Martin’s name came up in every conversation. His death nine years ago changed them. What Emmitt Till was to the civil rights generation, Trayvon Martin was to them,” Zirin says. “What Kaepernick provided was a method, a language for which they could take their anger and put it into action.”

When Zirin set out to collect the stories that would form The Kaepernick Effect at the start of 2020, he believed Kaepernick had started a movement that had perhaps run its course. The summer of 2020 changed everything, after George Floyd’s murder sparked a wave of protests across the US.

“Anytime you have protests that huge, there are going to be many roads that led there and one of those roads runs straight through the athletic fields of the United States in towns big and small, red states and blue states,” says Zirin.

When Zirin caught up with his interviewees during the protests of 2020, he found they were, without exception, out on the streets organizing. They proved they were lifelong activists as well as athletes, a quality they share with Kaepernick. A quality that Zirin believes is the essence of The Kaepernick Effect.

“The absolute highlighting of the bold-faced idea that being an athlete doesn’t mean that you’ve renounced your right to be political, that the political field is a contested political space and that protesting during the anthem is completely legitimate if you’re trying to showcase the lyrics of that song against the lived experiences of too many in this country.”


Melissa Jacobs

The GuardianTramp

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