“He was not simply content with being successful. He wanted to be great.”
So said Cornel West, Professor Of Public Philosophy at Harvard Divinity School as he awarded Colin Kaepernick the W.E.B DuBois Medal for contributions to African American culture and the life of the mind.
Colin Kaepernick’s solid resumé
From the very start, no one could doubt Colin Kaepernick had been successful. Although he didn’t play hockey in high school, he scored a pretty nifty hat trick nonetheless. He gained nominations as an all-state selection in three sports: baseball, football, and basketball.
The Central California Conference named him football’s MVP. And while all this was going on he somehow managed to keep a 4.0 academic average, a feat he duplicated at the University of Nevada.
After high school, his athletic record speaks for itself:
- Only player in NCAA Division 1 FBS history to amass 10,000 passing yards and 4,000 rushing yards in a career.
- Twice named Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Offensive Player of the Year.
- Selected by San Francisco 49ers in second round of 2011 NFL Draft.
- Led the 49ers to Super Bowl in 2012, his first season as an NFL quarterback and to the NFC Championship Game the following year.
- NFL record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game (181 yards) and most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single post-season (264 yards).
So yes, Kaepernick met with success. But did he achieve greatness? Probably not as a quarterback – although viewers of the 49ers vs. Packers 2013 Divisional Playoff game may disagree. With multiple injuries and changes in the 49ers head coach position, his performance suffered as he shuffled back and forth between starting and backup quarterback.
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Sitting it out creates a ripple
His rendezvous with greatness happened not on the gridiron but on the sidelines. It started to materialize during the first two games of the 2016 preseason when he refused to take the field for the singing of the national anthem. His absence created a ripple but not a big splash.
That was when the Army Times published an open letter to Kaepernick.
The writer was Nate Boyer, an ex- Green Beret and former college football player. He told Kaepernick he hated the fact that racism exists and that “I’m not judging you for what you believe in. It’s your inalienable right.”
After the letter went viral, Kaepernick summoned Boyer for a meeting. It was then that Boyer told him he thought, “Sitting on the bench isolated from your team is not very inspiring. It looks like you’re sitting it out or you don’t care.” He advised him to kneel alongside his teammates as they stood up.
Taking a knee makes a splash
So on September 1 of that year, just before the third preseason game, Kaepernick’s date with destiny became inevitable. He took the field, then crouched down on one knee, “taking a knee” in protest during the anthem’s performance.
After the game, he told reporters, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” By taking a knee, he stood up for justice.
The media, sensing the controversy and passions aroused by Kaepernick’s action, pushed the incident to stage center. “Taking a knee” became America’s newest buzz phrase, Kaepernick its newest celebrity.
But the action was no act. He didn’t want attention for himself but for a cause. The year before, 2015, had seen 305 black people — 78 of them unarmed — killed by police. Proportionally (based on the number of crimes committed) these figures were far higher than those for whites.
The killings reflected a prejudice dating back to slavery and rooted in systemic racism. Widespread awareness of the injustices was finally gaining traction, thanks to increased media attention and a fledgling movement called Black Lives Matter.
The stars aligned
Colin Kaepernick was hypersensitive to what was happening in America’s racial powder keg. As a child, he was adopted by a white couple. But like Barack Obama, his birth mother is white, his father black. With one foot in each world, Kaepernick became highly attuned to racial inequality. And as an NFL quarterback, he had the opportunity to call America’s attention to it.
He became the catalyst to push the Black Lives Matter agenda forward because he was the right person in the right place at the right time. When an individual has the stars aligned in this way — that’s when greatness happens.
Of course, a lot of people — a lot of football fans — did not view Kaepernick’s taking a knee as a sign of greatness. Quite the contrary. He was accused of being un-American, disrespecting the flag. In September of 2017, President Trump announced that if a player takes a knee, fans should leave the stadium, and club owners should fire that player.
On the weekend before the President’s declaration, five other NFL players had followed Kaepernick’s lead and taken a knee. But on the weekend after, the number had grown to over 200.
Colin Kaepernick — In the eye of the storm
As with so many other issues, Americans were polarized. Club owners were concerned with backlash from fans and sided with the President. Seven of the NFL owners had donated over a million dollars to his election campaign.
Emotions grew more impassioned when Kaepernick — after leaving the 49ers and becoming a free agent — failed to get an offer from any other team, despite his qualifications. Many in the press became convinced that he had been blackballed by the NFL team owners. Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL, alleging collusion by the club owners, eventually settling out of court.
When LeBron James and Serena Williams came out strongly in support of him, they remained as popular as ever. Commentators pointed out that if a Tom Brady or a Cam Newton had led the “take a knee” protest, they would still be playing. But because Kaepernick did not enjoy their superstar status, he was disposable.
Nike “just does it”
In 2018 Nike came out with a commercial featuring Kaepernick in which he urges viewers, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” In a later speech, he cleverly expanded on the thought: “If we all believe in something, we won’t have to sacrifice anything.”
A growing number of fans now look to Kaepernick as the underdog hero. On social websites and blogs, they laud him as “Kaptain America” and “the Muhammad Ali of our generation.”
Reaction to the Nike commercial is predictably polarized, but no one can deny it brought increased notoriety to Kaepernick and visibility to his cause. This is bound to increase with the production of a six-part Netflix series exploring “the quarterback’s high school years, attempting to show the experiences and insights that led to his activism.”
Nike Commercial Video
Clearly, Kaepernick appreciates the influence of the high school years in shaping perceptions and behaviors. The week after he first took a knee, an entire high school football team in Oakmont, California took a knee in support of him.
Kaepernick went to the school and spoke with the students. He later said “The moment has never left me” when one of the students told him, “We don’t get to eat at home so we’re going to eat on this field,” a pretty eloquent expression of the importance of protest in the black experience.
Taking it to the next level
Kneeling was a powerful act, but it was a symbolic one. Kaepernick realized he had to back it up with a tangible initiative using education and social activism to fight oppression With that in mind, he established the non-profit Colin Kaepernick Foundation, dedicated to making the world a better place for people of color.
His “Million Dollar Pledge” program set out to gift charities like Mothers Against Police Brutality with the backing they needed to effect real change. He also provided 100% of the funding for a “Know Your Rights Camp” designed to help disadvantaged minorities empower themselves.
The floodgates open
With the well-documented killing of George Floyd by police, the floodgates of protest opened. Kaepernick’s activism has clearly primed the pump for the flood unleashed in 2020. And “taking a knee” took on a grotesque double meaning as a police officer was caught on video with his knee on Floyd’s neck as the victim gasped, “I can’t breathe.”
Currently, Colin Kaepernick’s football career remains in limbo. But his place in the struggle for equal rights and human dignity is not. Nike Brand VP Gino Fisanotti summed it up: “Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to move the world forward.”
Kaepernick tells young people of color what his adoptive mom and dad told him from a very young age, “Don’t let anybody tell you what you can and can’t do.” This “just do it” philosophy makes him a perfect fit, not only for Nike but for the times in which we live – times that call for greatness.
By Art Novak
Art Novak is an Emmy-winning writer, novelist, and Professor Emeritus at Savannah College of Art and Design.
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