Colin Kaepernick kneels in protest during the national anthem before a game against the Los Angeles Rams on Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. He has done so for both 49ers games this season.
It’s tempting to write the Mizzou football team into the narrative of a resurgence of athlete activism. Indeed they belong, but they also stand out. For all of the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts on basketball courts and supportive tweets this football season, which are very much welcome, still no single athlete has attempted to duplicate the Mizzou football team’s tactic. No one has yet drawn on the huge and tangible economic power of sports to enact radical and lasting change.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem has been a refreshing addition to the world of sports activism, as it is a direct and unapologetic indictment of systemic racism in the United States. Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the anthem in the name of those slain by police violence is pointed and makes all the right people very uncomfortable. His protest asks people to consider: Do you care more about blind allegiance to symbols, or ensuring that the rights those symbols are meant to represent can be enjoyed by all of us? He is sharp in his responses to his critics, and measured in his message to the rest of us: “People want to have the opportunity to live an equal and just life," he said Sunday. "That's ultimately what they are supporting.”
But between the moment when he kneels for the anthem and the time dozens of reporters push a microphone into his face, Kaepernick still goes out and does his job. His silent protest is no boycott. It has the power to irritate, but not to deprive. It moves discussion, but not systems. It asks, rather than demands.
The number of athletes joining in this form of protest is growing at all levels—high school teams are sitting out the anthem, too, and there are early signs NBA players will do more than read a prepared statement at an award show. Though, you have to wonder: Is a silent protest by athletes on the biggest stage dramatic enough to produce any substantive change? Kaepernick says he doesn’t want to kneel forever, meaning he would like to see the end of police killings and some establishment of justice. But how long will it take before the kneeling and the black power fists are tolerated as a mildly unpleasant but ultimately harmless distraction?
A year ago, the intrepid football players of Mizzou weren’t looking to cause a distraction. They were threatening to take the game away—and with it, the money.
"People want to have the opportunity to live an equal and just life."
— COLIN KAEPERNICK
The economic power of even a poorly performing collegiate sports team (the Tigers went 5-7 last year, and they lost again Saturday) is such that Missouri was poised to lose millions of dollars if the boycotters refused to take the field last fall, a million alone for simply breaking a contract for a game at the Kansas City Chiefs’ stadium against BYU. The ripple effect on local businesses that depend on large crowds spending in college towns on game day gets felt way beyond the quad. The University of Missouri and the city of Columbia literally could not afford to allow these protests to go on. From the standpoint of the protestor, there is no spot sweeter. The Tigers didn’t get everything on the students’ list of demands—that goal of 10 percent black faculty and staff is a ways off—but the changes are significant to this day. They won.
Still, you have to wonder whether the fear of the powerful institutions will remain. What these students did fits the criteria for extremely effective protest, except so far, no other athletes have been willing to duplicate. This didn’t happen in a vacuum—there was a larger movement outside of the football team already in place, with a specific set of demands and a plan of action for implementation. The football players found themselves reflected in the movement and decided to use the power afforded them, actively, to drive change.
“Let this be a testament to all the other athletes across the country. You do have power,” one of the Mizzou football players, Charles Harris, said less than a year ago. “It started with a few individuals on our team and look at what it’s become.”
But what has that inspirational moment of protest become? Those 32 daring amateur athletes drew no salaries. They signed no endorsement deals. The impact of a professional sports boycott against racial injustice—not by T-shirt or by tweet but by sheer refusal to play—would be enormous. If the Kansas City Chiefs decided not to play the Jets this Sunday, it could make allies out of the formerly apathetic. If LeBron James, Aaron Rodgers, Stephen Curry and Bryce Harper were all to announce that they would no longer play until the Movement for Black Lives policy platform was implemented at every level of government, and more of their colleagues began to follow suit, there would be a massive disruption in the status quo. At what point do the pros recognize where their true power lies and seize it?
They give us more questions to ponder: How much do our hero athletes believe in the cause of ending racial injustice? And what are they willing to sacrifice? How many Michael Browns, Korryn Gaineses, Alton Sterlings, Philando Castiles, Sandra Blands and Freddie Grays must there be before the silent protests start to feel as insufficient as the symbols they are protesting?
The nature of protest is hopeful and unpredictable. The Missouri Tigers put uncertain futures on the line for a cause they may not have won. That courage is hard to duplicate. That courage makes history.