When Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to take a stand against police brutality and racial injustice in 2016, he was mostly alone.
Politicians, team owners and fellow players criticized him, fans burned his jersey, and he was booed even at home. Four years later, his protest is widely viewed as prescient. Global opinion has shifted so much that more people are now vilifying those who attack Kaepernick or misrepresent his stance.
New Orleans Saints star quarterback Drew Brees issued a public apologize Thursday after he was excoriated by teammates, other athletes and fans for saying he “will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States.”
That sentiment has been voiced loudly by Kaepernick's critics and President Donald Trump reiterated it Friday, saying on Twitter: “I am a big fan of Drew Brees. I think he's truly one of the greatest quarterbacks, but he should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag. OLD GLORY is to be revered, cherished, and flown high... We should be standing up straight and tall, ideally with a salute, or a hand on heart. There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag - NO KNEELING!”
Still, George Floyd's death, which ignited nationwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality, awakened many people to the root of the issues that led to Kaepernick's peaceful demonstration – an expression meant to raise awareness of such issues, not demean the flag or the anthem. Kaepernick, 32, hasn't played in the NFL since 2016.
“The protest is really trying to hold us accountable for the things we say we believe in. It's about equality and justice for all,” said Houston Texans wide receiver Kenny Stills, who has been taking a knee during Week 1 of the 2016 season.
The NFL and its teams have voiced their support for equality and called for change. In a video released Thursday night, 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes and several of his peers asked the league to “condemn racism and the systemic oppression of black people” and “admit wrong in silencing players from peacefully protesting.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did so in a video released Friday.
“We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people,” Goodell said. “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter. I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much needed change in this country. Without black players, there would be no National Football League. And the protests around the country are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff. We are listening. I am listening, and I will be reaching out to players who have raised their voices and others on how we can improve and go forward for a better and more united NFL family.”
This week, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Kaepernick deserves respect and admiration for starting the protest.
“I think people understand it so much more now than they did three years ago, and I'm all for protests. I'm all for change,” Shanahan said. “What's different now and then, it's embarrassing to say, probably, but I think white people are more passionate about it now than then. That's our ignorance and that's what upsets black people. They have every right to be upset because they haven't just been telling us this the last few weeks. They've been telling us this since our grandparents, and I've been hearing it from every one of my friends since I was 14. Then I hear Champ Bailey talking about it in his Hall of Fame speech. It's all the time and it's too long. Whatever's got to get changed, let's do it.”
Chicago Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan said the global pandemic has given people more time to think about race issues.
“Back then it was just made about one situation, about the military, and that's what everybody was focusing on,” Trevathan said. “I've got people in my family that fought for America in the military, different branches. So it wasn't about that. It was about something bigger than that issue. It was about police brutality and the way we treat people. Right now, I feel like we are taking a different stand because people are sick of it.”