Sticking to sports unfair in today’s social climate

Michael Shapiro

We don’t know where Colin Kaepernick spent his Sunday afternoon as teams around the NFL kicked off week three of the regular season, but his presence was felt throughout the league.

Players on nearly every team participated in protests during the national anthem before kickoff, following the former 49ers quarterback and current social activist’s lead. And their message was clear: they wouldn’t be content simply “sticking to sports.”

Kaepernick began his protest of police brutality and racism in August 2016, originally taking a seat on the bench during the anthem before transitioning to his now-famous kneel. He was released from San Francisco’s roster following the 2016 season – the 49ers opted to go in a different direction at quarterback with new head coach Kyle Shanahan – and is still unemployed to this day.

Critics of Kaepernick and other protesting players claim that it’s not a player’s place to protest on the field, claiming social activism should take place only away from the game. They argue that these players should let their play do the talking, and air their grievances somewhere out of sight and out of mind. Sunday football is about evaluating your fantasy roster, not your moral conscience.

But these critics miss the point. Players like Kaepernick are in a unique position to raise issues of social justice, not just as athletes, but as prominent African American men. There’s no better place to highlight the injustices of our time than in front of millions of people on a Sunday afternoon. Nobody told Texans defensive end J.J. Watt to stick to sports when he raised over $37 million for Hurricane Harvey relief, so why are people so eager to silence athletes protesting police brutality on a national stage? The hypocrisy is clear.

With Kaepernick out of the league, a few players picked up the protest mantle in the opening weeks of the 2017 season. Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett was notably outspoken in his protest, and Philadelphia Eagles’ lineman Chris Long became one of the first white players to support his African American teammates by putting his arm around the protesting Malcolm Jenkins before a preseason game in August.

These protests during the national anthem were few and far between through the first two weeks of the NFL season. However, that changed over the weekend after President Trump’s remarks during a rally on Friday night in Huntsville, Alabama.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now,’” Trump said. "You know, some owner is going to do that. He's going to say, 'That guy that disrespects our flag, he's fired.' And that owner, they don't know it [but] they'll be the most popular person in this country."

Players across the league denounced Trump’s comments over the weekend, as well as NFL owners, many of whom supported the President during his campaign. And protests arose both during and after the national anthem. The Seahawks, Steelers and Titans spent the anthem in their respective locker rooms, and star receiver Odell Beckham Jr. put his fist in the air following a touchdown catch against Philadelphia. Regardless of what channel you flipped to before kickoff on Sunday, you could see players locking arms, taking a knee, and joining together in an exercise of protest and free speech.

Kaepernick won’t be on an NFL sideline next week, and he may never be again. And that’s a true shame. But while his bravery has led to his current unemployment, it inspired a movement across the NFL. Players throughout the league will no longer be silenced inside stadium walls. Instead, they’ll be voicing their social activism every week, in clear view for the entire nation to see.  

Shapiro is a journalism senior from Highlands Ranch, Colorado.