With the NFL season less than 48 hours away, the biggest headline is neither the Super Bowl rematch that kicks off the season nor the four-game suspension of Tom Brady—it’s Colin Kaepernick.
The sixth-year veteran has drawn plenty of attention, not for his subpar play on the field, but instead for his decision to sit during the national anthem of the San Francisco 49ers’ preseason games. Despite rampant backlash, Kaepernick has stood by his actions and said he did not want to support the American flag and “a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
Although athletes often voice their opinions on relevant social and political issues, few do so as dramatically as Kaepernick has done, as evidenced by the amount of coverage his stand—or really, sit—has received. His jersey is currently the league’s best-seller, and the revenue generated in the past week is more than his jersey collected in the last eight months combined.
Maybe all of this attention speaks to the lack of superstars at the quarterback position, with Peyton Manning, Brady and Tony Romo all absent from the league’s opening day slate and Cam Newton keeping a surprisingly low profile during the offseason.
After all, a story has to be pretty significant for a reporter to pester President Barack Obama at the G-20 Summit in China about what a backup quarterback did during a preseason game.
The question is whether Kaepernick’s actions warrant such criticism, or whether they should simply serve as a conversation-starter.
Although many athletes voice support for issues, Kaepernick is sticking his neck out alone to raise awareness for a cause he is passionate about. It’s a bold move for an NFL quarterback, certainly, and brings with it a number of unwanted personal attacks.
Many have called Kaepernick hypocritical for condemning the very nation which glorifies the sport that makes him a multi-millionaire. Others argue that the football field is not the place to take a stand, and that he is violating his primary responsibility to his team by staging such a distraction.
This incident comes at a particularly interesting time, given that U.S. Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas was similarly vilified for failing to cover her heart while the national anthem played during the gold medal ceremony. Douglas apologized for her mishap and the controversy quickly dissipated, but Kaepernick has shown no signs of backing down from his position.
And that’s perfectly fine.
Because of sports’ rampant popularity, professional athletes have the capacity to reach an expansive audience that few members of society can—there is no reason they should not take advantage of that, even if they are not paid to do so. It’s refreshing to see a postgame press conference and the next day’s headlines focus on something other than a petty spat between teammates, or the nuances of a superstar’s latest fashion choices.
Perhaps most important, though, is the way Kaepernick has conducted himself.
He made his statement before the opening kickoff without affecting competition in any way. The statement itself was solitary, peaceful and did not impede anyone else from honoring the flag.
In short, Kaepernick was, to borrow a phrase from Obama, exercising his constitutional right to freedom of expression.
After the game, Kaepernick continued to do all of the right things. He calmly answered questions from the media about his actions, explaining his rationale and why he feels racial conflicts are so important. Both the 49ers and the league office have issued statements in the past few days affirming his right to sit during the anthem, and supporting his choice to do so.
And Kaepernick also put his money where his mouth is, promising to donate $1 million—he is scheduled to make $11.9 million this year—to groups affected by issues such as racial injustice and police brutality.
Although Blaine Gabbert will be San Francisco’s starter in the team’s opener Monday night against Los Angeles, expect more cameras to be pointing at the team’s bench. And if the past few weeks are any indication, expect Kaepernick to be the quarterback who has the biggest impact.