A symbol that spread through the sports world

September 23, 2016

Colin Kaepernick's simple act of taking a knee during the national anthem in an act of protest against racism and police violence has set off an earthquake in the world of sports, and the reverberations show no sign of stopping any time soon.

Dave Zirin is a Nation columnist on all matters sports and the author of numerous books, including Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down and Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy. Last weekend, he talked with Danny Katch, author of Socialism...Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation, about the tide of protest that has rolled over football at all levels and far beyond since Kaepernick's action.

COLIN KAEPERNICK'S protest during the national anthem has spread to other professional athletes, down to college and high school athletes, and even a youth football team in Texas. Is there any precedent for an athletic protest having this kind of immediate viral impact?

THERE ABSOLUTELY is a precedent, and we would know about it more if only there were smartphones back in 1968. After the U.S. Olympic athletes John Carlos and Tommy Smith raised their fists in Mexico City at the 1968 Games, people were doing it around the country--youth groups, high school graduating classes, sports teams.

The lack of recording devices is one reason why we don't know about it, and another reason is that it often happened in the rural South--in Black high schools, junior high schools and certainly Black colleges. In 1969, the entire graduating class of Howard University raised their fists like Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

So that act is a precedent. Obviously, social media makes it so much more powerful in 2016, but there are parallels to the past--this incredible showing of dissent on the sports field, but also the context of a broader movement that amplifies it and makes it resonate.

Seattle's Garfield High School football team kneels in protest during the national anthem

SOME OF the biggest stars in the NBA have been publicly trying to figure out how to help the Black Lives Matter movement, but Kaepernick has done more by just taking a knee, a very simple gesture. What is about this protest that strikes such a chord?

I RESPECT the fact that people like Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony are feeling an obligation to speak out. We should have all the respect in the world that they--sorry to use this metaphor--moved the ball forward, just by saying you have a right to speak out and you need to say something about the police killings that are taking place.

The first thing that makes Kaepernick different, though, isn't the taking the knee at the anthem, but the political content of what he's doing. He's saying, "No justice no peace." He's taking a side and going beyond what many people have said--that we need stop the violence, and to bring police and community together.

Kaepernick is saying that there's something wrong with a system where police won't even be prosecuted when they kill someone. It isn't about just getting to know the police better or having more forums or building more bridges. It's about there being something systemically wrong about the way policing is done in this country. That's the political content, and it's a huge part of what makes this different.

Then there's the act of first sitting and then kneeling during the anthem, which is putting politics in a space that many sports fans--especially reactionary, right-wing sports fans--want to see as an apolitical space.

Kaepernick is violating this unspoken social contract between the team owners and majority white fan base that says Black athletes are to be seen, but not heard. They are here for entertainment, but you don't have to really care what they think about the world.

And then the simplicity of the gesture is something that allows itself for replication. One of the reasons that it spread is that while people agree with Kaepernick that we have to have a discussion about police violence, it also became an act of solidarity against the death threats and racism that he is receiving.

Kaepernick has a teammate named Eli Harold, who last week wasn't going to do anything about the anthem or the flag. But then ESPN's Trent Dilfer basically said Kaepernick should shut his mouth and play, and Eli was so mad that he decided to join the protest.

Then there's the social media aspect of it. You see that picture of Howard University cheerleaders all taking a knee--cheerleaders are usually seen in the football context as not to be taken seriously, and here you see the unsmiling pose of these incredibly strong Black women.

That's a powerful image, and the only thing you can do when you see an image like that is respond. Some respond with respect, and others respond with absolute, utter hate. What you don't see is people being neutral when they see it.

WHEN TOMMIE Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in 1968, they were immediately hustled away from Mexico City. Twenty years later, when the basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf protested the national anthem, his career came to an end pretty quickly.

Obviously, it's way too early to say what will happen here, but one clear difference is that a mainstream audience didn't get a chance to hear what Smith and Carlos or Abdul-Rauf thought in their own words. Today, many people are listening to Kaepernick's interviews and hearing how thoughtful he is. What do you think accounts for this? A change in the sports media landscape, social media, a reflection of Black Lives Matter? All of the above?

THAT'S A great question. Abdul-Rauf's protest was in 1996, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos were at the 1968 Olympic Games. I think the media of 1996 had far more in common with the media of 1968 than with the media of 2016.

The sports media of 1996 and before was made up largely of older, white conservative sportswriters who set the tone for how things would be discussed across the country. That's not as much the case today

Don't get me wrong--there are still a lot of racist sportswriters in 2016. At the same time, you can see that the sportswriting landscape and the NFL business landscape is much more responsive to what is said and discussed on social media. In many respects, social media sets the tone for how these discussions take place. Not entirely, but the balance of power is different from what it was in 1996.

Let me give you an example of that. One of the media narratives when Kaepernick started sitting was, "Oh, he's disrespecting veterans!"

What happened in response to that? #VeteransforKaepernick. Photos all over the internet of veterans kneeling during the national anthem. And so before you know it, you have a radical veteran, my man Rory Fanning, invited onto CNN to explain why he stands with Colin Kaepernick.

It's not like we control the mainstream television and print media from social media below. But the balance of power is changing dramatically. And obviously, that balance of power wouldn't be the same if there wasn't a Black Lives Matter movement.

So it's a combination of those factors: The presence of the movement itself, plus a sports media and a mainstream media that are much more responsive as people talk about issues on the social media platform.

SINCE THIS protest has spread, Kaepernick isn't the only NFL player speaking incredibly powerfully about the reasons for it. Jared Odrick wrote an incredible piece in Sports Illustrated...

WHICH ALSO would not have happened in 1996 by the way.

RIGHT. AND Arian Foster is talking to reporters in the locker room about the legacy of slavery. Charles Woodson, as a member of an ESPN panel show, is talking about how he's learned about the national anthem.

In your career, you've not only focused on the intersection of sports and politics, but particularly on getting to know modern athletes who are political. Based on your experience, to what extent do you think things like the Black Lives Matter movement and other issues are radicalizing players, and to what extent do you think there's been a number of players who have very interesting political things to say, and this is the first time that millions of people are getting a chance to hear it?

I THINK we've seen a bubbling of this for quite a few years. You have to understand the continuity in what's happening right now. It would be a mistake to say, like a lot of the media is saying: "You had a lot of athletes who were political in the late 1960s, and then maybe you had some women who were political like Billie Jean King in the 1970s and now it's re-emerging."

That's just not the truth. The same way that in the labor movement there are people who stay active in the dark times and are able to be that connective tissue between the ups and the downs, it's the same way in sports. So that's the importance of knowing the history of people like Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in the 1990s, when it really was at its worst in terms of athletes in struggle.

But I'm really thinking more of the post-9/11 period and the athletes who spoke out against war unapologetically. People like Etan Thomas. Even a 19-year-old Lebron James said his goal was to dunk on George W. Bush.

Athletes, of course, have always had political discussions in the locker room, and I think they've always had a unique view of U.S. society, because they're disproportionately African American in basketball and football, and disproportionately Dominican and Latino in baseball. Many grow up in poverty, and then they get a lot of money. Then, all of a sudden, everybody's pushing a microphone in front of their faces. That's a crazy perch by which to look at this country. It's a crazy perspective.

Also, I think that what athletes have found in recent years in particular is when they speak out and say something, they actually get some praise for that, too. It's not the boring "We play one game a time, the good lord willing" quote. There's a thirst to know these athletes more as personalities.

I think a lot of the leagues have marketed that. But for the front office, that giveth and it taketh away--because what if you want to get to know a player, and instead of hearing "Eat your vitamins and stay in school," they're saying "Black Lives Matter" or "I support my gay teammates." Or we demand equal pay because we're women soccer players, and we just won the World Cup.

Honestly, one big turning point in athletes feeling the confidence to speak out was around 2008 with Barack Obama's campaign. All of a sudden, a lot of the media were going to Black athletes because it was good copy: "What do you think about this historic moment of a first Black president?"

That's the first time you heard people like Carmelo Anthony speak out. That's the first time you heard Lebron James say something really political. I think that began to plant some seeds in a lot of these athletes. It's almost like they were trying on a new suit, and they said, "Hey, this feels pretty good."

That's all built us up to this moment. I've said this before and I'll say it again: If it wasn't Colin Kaepernick, it would have been somebody else. This was ready to happen.

YOU'VE TALKED about how pro athletes in basketball and football are disproportionately African American. It also seems like throughout U.S. history, among the ranks of athlete protesters in the U.S.--especially male athlete protesters--it's been even more disproportionately African American.

Of course, that has to do with the racism that they're reacting against. But African American athletes aren't the only athletes who face racism. To what extent to do you think, consciously or unconsciously, Black athletes today have a strength from drawing on the legacy of protest from previous generations--whether it's Muhammad Ali or Jackie Robinson, who, as you've shown in your writings, was involved in a lot more protest than mainstream history indicates?

FIRST OF all, there's always been this intersection of politics and sports and anti-racism because sports was one of the few avenues for Black men in particular to show excellence and have standing.

Sports also became this place where all the lies of racism--the number one lie being Black inferiority--could be disproven in a very public way. How are you going to argue the inferiority of people based on the color of their skin when you have Jack Johnson as the heavyweight champion?

So it's always been this politicized space. But when you talk about athletes in 2016, I really believe that the death of Muhammad Ali and the amount of coverage that received has played an unspoken role in everything we're seeing right now.

The coverage of his death was an education for people. Based on their social media feeds, a lot of athletes weren't just saying: Rest in peace. They were re-tweeting articles, too. It wasn't that different for a lot of the country. There was an education process about Ali once he passed away, and I think it made a big impact on a lot of athletes.

THIS QUESTION is very specifically about the NFL. It's interesting that this protest sparked by Kaepernick hit the NFL. First, because as you've noted many times, this is a league that has wrapped itself in the flag and tied itself to uber-patriotism and militarism. But second, this is a league where players have the least amount of protection, not having guaranteed contracts. And keep in mind that this protest was started by a backup quarterback--who has more name recognition than many because he wasn't always a backup, but he doesn't have great job security.

But the commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, has alienated the hell out of the players in recent years by acting as judge, jury and executioner with disciplinary issues and violating their collective bargaining rights. To what extent do you think that this might be a factor in fueling the support for Kaepernick among players?

ROGER GOODELL is someone who fines people for having the wrong color shoelaces. He fined Antonio Brown for twerking in the end zone. Terrell Pryor pretty much lost the game for the Browns last weekend because he flipped the ball at a referee, and they gave him a penalty because they said that was showboating when it accidentally hit the guy guarding him on the helmet.

That's the NFL--completely authoritarian and top down in how it polices players.

But look how gingerly Roger Goodell has walked around this issue. The league isn't fining or suspending players for protesting during the anthem or walking out onto the field with slogans written on their uniforms. You have to ask the question: Why is this cabal of right-wing owners and their flak-catcher in the commissioner's office not cracking down?

I think the answer is that they realize they have a $20 billion business that's built on a very rickety foundation. The NFL has 0 percent Black owners and 70 percent Black players--and at the skill positions, the percentage is higher--who destroy their bodies playing this sport. I think the numbers are 24 percent of front-office people are Black, and 16 percent of head coaches are Black.

In other words, if the players say, "We're mad about the situation of Black people in this country," the last thing they want to do is fine those players and have them say, "Gee, I guess the NFL is no different from being Black in an alley and running across a cop in South Carolina." The last thing they want is people drawing those kinds of direct parallels.

RATHER THAN ask what you think will come of this protest, my final question is: What's the best-case scenario that can come of all this, and what's the worst case scenario--so that we can get a sense of the range of possibilities?

IF THERE'S one thing I've learned from looking at athletic protests, they're a feature of the broader movement, not a substitute for it. So this has already been a success--another chapter in the history of sports and politics has been written.

We already know this is going to happen in the NBA because players like Iman Shumpert and Victor Oladipo say it's going to happen. So this isn't going anywhere. The protests could stop in the NFL tomorrow--though they won't--and they would start up again November 1 in the NBA.

And tragically, as long as there are violent police officers in this country, these protests will continue. As long as there is no justice, there's not going to be peace.

So the best-case scenario is that we keep the struggle going so that the families who have been devastated by losing their loved ones to police and getting no redress actually start to see real justice. As long as athletes shine a light on what's happening, in concert with broader movements, then that points to the hope of ending the scourge of racist police violence once and for all.

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