When former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated during the national anthem before a preseason NFL game in 2016, he told the media the reason was simple:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said. “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 said he knew there would be repercussions — though few could have predicted exactly how far-reaching they would be. His protest started a movement, shone a spotlight on police brutality at the forefront of the national conversation and touched off a war between the NFL and President Trump. It also cost Kaepernick a career that had once been among the most promising we’d ever seen. But his protests might not have been in vain: Although the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd are further proof that systemic racism is no closer to extinction now than it was four years ago, the reaction has been notably different this time — in terms of who is speaking out.
After Kaepernick began his protests, he was soon joined by fellow players from across the NFL, including teammate Eric Reid and about a dozen others to start the 2016 season. By the following season, Kaepernick was out of football, but his movement had gained even more momentum, with hundreds of players kneeling in solidarity after Trump criticized the protests. It was a flashpoint, one that forced the nation’s most popular (and bipartisan) league — along with its fans — to stare the issue of police violence and racial injustice in its ugly face.
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What was missing, however, was participation from Kaepernick’s own position: quarterback, the most high-profile role in the game. According to a list compiled in 2017 by Colt Kesselring of Hero Sports, not a single QB was among the players who protested during the anthem in Week 3 of that season, when demonstrations peaked. The most the league’s passers did was lock arms with teammates or stand behind the bench during the anthem.1
Without the support of prominent QBs, most of whom are (and have always been) white, did the movement have less of a chance to be accepted by the majority of fans? Remember, at the time, just 38 percent of American adults approved of players choosing not to stand during the national anthem.
This time seems different, though. While players have not had to make the decision between kneeling or standing for the anthem — yet — many have been vocal about Floyd’s death on social media. I combed through the Twitter and Instagram feeds of every quarterback who is either clearly his team’s current starter or could potentially win the QB job this season, and is on social media (33 quarterbacks in total)2 to count statements about Floyd, police brutality or racism and white privilege in general. Before Tuesday’s blackout protest on Instagram, 17 of the 33 quarterbacks had posted about those subjects on social media in the last week. As of Wednesday morning, the QB tally is now up to 28, of whom 19 are white.
We don’t know whether all (or any) of these quarterbacks will continue addressing racism as the season approaches. (Posting on social media doesn’t necessarily correlate with support for the greater NFL protest movement: New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees posted a black square on Instagram on Tuesday, but he said in an interview with Yahoo on Wednesday: “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America.”) But their statements now do potentially signal an increased willingness to speak out on issues of race, especially compared with when Kaepernick began kneeling in 2016.
The country as a whole also has shifted in its perceptions of racism from an earlier era — both in a greater sense of overall pessimism about race relations but also in changing views on race in general. As recently as 2007, only 33 percent of all American adults in a Gallup poll said they were “somewhat dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the way black people were treated, including just 24 percent of white respondents. By 2016, those numbers had shifted to 47 percent and 43 percent, respectively. And in 2018, they’d shifted to 54 percent for all Americans (an increase of 21 percentage points from 2007) and 48 percent for whites (an increase of 24 points).3 In other words, the changing attitudes of Americans in general — and white Americans in particular — about racism in the U.S. could also be reflected in the way famous athletes choose to address the problem.
As Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated wrote this week:
“Mainstream white America is going to reconsider Kaepernick at some point — the way it reconsidered Muhammad Ali years after he refused to go to Vietnam, the way it reconsidered Jackie Robinson and Jack Johnson. Progress comes in fits and starts, and this country tends to punish those who urge it to move faster. The reconsideration of Kaepernick has begun. Today, surely, there are still millions of Americans who don’t like Kaepernick, what he said, what he did, or how he looks. But there are also surely millions who didn’t like him four years ago and who see his point now — or, at least, who understand now that Kaepernick and the athletes who kneeled with him are not on an island.”
Fixing centuries of structural racism will take a lot more than a few quarterbacks posting black squares on Instagram or screenshotting statements they composed in the Notes app of their iPhones. But the wave of prominent athletes — especially white ones — making statements of solidarity in the wake of Floyd’s killing might be an indication that more players will follow Kaepernick’s lead this time around.
UPDATE (June 3, 2020, 2:25 p.m.): This article was updated with comments from New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.