Can Colin Kaepernick avoid the predictable and unfortunate consequences for athletes who speak out against injustice?
There's a reason why Michael Jordan never said anything of social, political, or racial significance during his professional basketball career.
When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick went public with his rationale for not standing during the playing of the national anthem, thrusting himself into the ongoing debate about discrimination, police abuse, and racism, he placed himself in a precarious position from which similarly outspoken pro athletes' careers rarely recovered.
There are of course countless numbers of people in every walk of life, from pharmacists and janitors to cashiers and attorneys, who share Kaepernick's opinion about the the racism and discrimination encountered by African-Americans and other people of color in the Good ol U-S of A. And for these unknown individuals, exercising their right to express their opinions on the subject can have untold ramifications depending upon their particular workplace and individual set of circumstances.
But in the case of Kaepernick, there is a very public history to fall back on that shows the repercussions for high-profile athletes taking principled, controversial stands are both highly predictable and largely unfortunate.
There's a reason why Magic Johnson never said anything of social, political, or racial significance during his professional basketball career.
While not standing during the playing of the national anthem is relatively benign act when compared to the work of contemporary activists like the Frisco 5 who engaged in a 17-day hunger strike that helped lead to the resignation of San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, or the Black Lives Matter activists who faced down militarized police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, Kaepernick's peaceful protest has stirred more than its share of debate.
Seemingly, within minutes of Kaepernick's post-silent peaceful protest press conference social media lit up like charcoal grills on Labor Day with expectedly superficial comments and insults hurled in all directions. In addition to countless racial slurs directed at the quarterback, the most peculiar criticism suggested that as a wealthy athlete Kaepernick should be more thankful for and less critical of the country where he plies his trade, as though additional commas and zeroes in a bank account are a shield from racism.
To his credit Kaepernick has not shrunken in the face of his newfound criticism and scrutiny and has gone on to clarify his positions in multiple interviews and press conferences. Kaepernick even pledged $1 million to various community-based organizations dealing with the issues he's most concerned about.
It isn't the fact that Kaepernick's comments are new or nuanced — they're neither. But the fact that they are being spoken by a star athlete in America's most popular sport lend extra amplification to both his words and actions.
But it is precisely that star status that has landed Kaepernick amongst a select group of professional athletes who dared to use their prominence to speak out about social injustice.
There's a reason why Jerry Rice never said anything of social, political, or racial significance during his professional football career.
Historically speaking, stellar on-field play is the only thing that will possibly allow Kaepernick to weather this storm, maintain his high-profile and keep his messages regarding racial discrimination in front of the public. Stellar on-field play is the only thing that causes NFL owners to look the other way on all things, be it controversial speech, domestic violence, drug use, or gunplay.
It is the curse of the professional athlete that their perceived worth is linked to the extent that they can perform incredible athletic feats to earn money for their corporate bosses. As soon as their skills diminish, they are replaced with a newer, younger, faster, stronger model. And that is the way it works for athletes who stay in their place and remain silent and ignorant of social issues. For those like Kaepernick who dare to speak out about social ills or injustice and draw the ire of a large segment of fans, media pundits, police organizations and members of the military, that clocked is sped up exponentially.
There's a reason why Emmit Smith never said anything of social, political, or racial significance during his professional football career.
In 1996 Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, point guard for the Denver Nuggets, refused to stand for the national anthem, choosing instead to remain in the locker room until the ceremony concluded. Similar to Kaepernick, Abdul-Rauf viewed the American flag and national anthem as symbols of oppression, stating, "The flag is "a symbol of oppression and of tyranny. This country has a long history of that. I don't think you can argue the facts. You can't be for God and for oppression. It's clear in the Koran, Islam is the only way. I don't criticize those who stand, so don't criticize me for sitting. I won't waver from my decision."
When word of his protest and rationale leaked out, the reactions were harsh predictable and widespread by pre-social media standards. The head of the American Legion in Colorado said, "Refusing to stand up and recognize the unity of this nation as embodied under the flag to me is tantamount to treason."
The NBA suspended Abdul-Rauf and fined him $31,707 each time the anthem was played and he refused to stand. According to the league, Abdul-Rauf was violating a rule stating "players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture during the playing of the American and/or Canadian national anthems."
A compromise was eventually reached in which Abdul-Rauf would be allowed to stand and pray during the anthem without the penalty of fine or suspension.
The episode led to Abdul-Rauf being traded to the Sacramento Kings at the end of the season, despite leading the Nuggets in scoring and assists. In an interview, Abdul-Rauf said there was a process of trying to weed him out by reducing his playing time in order to build a narrative that his skills had diminished.
“It's like trying to set you up to fail," he said. "So when they get rid of you, they can blame it on that as opposed to, 'it was really because he took these positions.' They don’t want these type of examples to spread, so they’ve got to make an example of individuals like this.”
Conspiracy or not Abdul-Rauf's NBA career ended two years after the anthem incident (save a brief stint with the Vancouver Grizzlies in 2001), forcing him to play basketball overseas because no NBA team would even offer him a tryout.
"After the national anthem fiasco, nobody really wanted to touch me," he said. "After that, it was like it killed everything. Because that was after September 11. I could not even get an invitation to go try out with a team. I just laid low, stayed at home, spent more time with my family, trying to do things in the community and see if eventually I could get back into it. At the end, I said… Man, I still have a love for this thing and there’s got to be somebody out there that wants to give me a chance to play. And that’s why I have been overseas and have been ever since," Abdul-Rauf said. "A lot of my best years were taken away."
There's a reason why Kobe Bryant never said anything of social, political, or racial significance during his professional basketball career.
Tommie Smith & John Carlos
In the most iconic image of Black athletic protest, sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos stand atop the medal platform at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City with gloved fists raised in the air and heads bowed as the American national anthem plays. The gesture was a part of a protest from the Olympic Project for Human Rights, a human rights campaign that sought to leverage the cache of Olympic athletes to bring attention to various social issues.
Because their protest took place at the Olympics, Carlos and Smith's act of defiance drew international attention and a harsh backlash that lingered long after the flames of the Olympic torch were extinguished.
Mainstream newspapers referred to the protest as a "Nazi-like salute," "an insult to their countrymen." And venerable sportscaster Brent Musburger, writing for the Chicago American, referred to Smith and Carlos as "black-skinned stormtroopers."
Musburger wrote, "Their ignoble performance on the victory stand completely overshadowed a magnificent performance by two black athletes. It’s a shame. Smith will not now be remembered as that splendid runner who so thoroughly demolished the world’s record that he ran the last 10 yards with both arms held high in triumph over his head as he crashed through the finish line in the fantastic time of 19.8. He will instead be remembered as the militant black who shook a black glove and black track shoe during the playing of the national anthem. It hardly seems on the level with his first accomplishment, and it did absolutely nothing to relax racial tensions any place."
As wrong as history has shown Musburger's take to be, his sentiment was the prevailing one in America. As a result, Carlos and Smith were suspended from the US Olympic team and banished from the Olympic Village. The former sprinters also received death threats and had difficulty finding employment.
In a 2003 interview Carlos said, “I don’t feel embraced, I feel like a survivor, like I survived cancer. It’s like if you are sick and no one wants to be around you, and when you’re well everyone who thought you would go down for good doesn’t even want to make eye contact. It was almost like we were on a deserted island. That’s where Tommie Smith and John Carlos were. But we survived.”
"One minute everything was sunny and happy, the next minute was chaos and crazy," Smith said. "I had no job no education and I was married with a 7-month-old son. They called us on the carpet for dishonoring the American flag. They never let us forget that we were wrong. We were not wrong. We were only ahead of our time."
There's a reason why OJ Simpson never said anything of social, political, or racial significance during his professional football career.
Muhammad Ali is the unquestionable gold standard regarding athletes taking principled stands against injustice. As a result of refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, Ali was stripped of his title, denied a license to box in every state, convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison and issued a $10,000 fine. While Ali never served time in prison, he was not allowed to fight during what were arguably his prime fighting years, from 1967 to 1970, as his case worked its way through the legal system and eventually to the Supreme Court, where his conviction was eventually overturned.
Despite the sweet words and fond remembrances spoken at his funeral, when Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the military, in addition to his conversion to Islam, changing of his name, and affiliation with the Nation of islam, he was vilified by the mainstream media and much of the public that at the time was still largely in favor of the war. As the war grew more unpopular public opinion of Ali began to shift — but that was years later. In the immediate aftermath of his decision Ali received death threats and was the target of violence, vandalism, and harassment at his home.
There was an overwhelming segment of the population who viewed Ali in the same terms as TV host David Susskind, who said, "I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man. He's a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly describes as his profession. He is a convicted felon in the United States. He has been found guilty. He is out on bail. He will inevitably go to prison, as well he should. He is a simplistic fool and a pawn."
Even baseball legend Jackie Robinson weighed in in opposition to Ali's stance. "He's hurting the morale of a lot of Negro soldiers over in Vietnam," Robinson said. "And the tragedy to me is Cassius has made millions of dollars off of the American public, and now he's not willing to show his appreciation to a country that's giving him, in my view, a fantastic opportunity."
When he returned to boxing Ali ascended back to the top of the sport with classic bouts against Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and George Foreman, giving him a platform to continue being an outspoken advocate for the Black community and eventually a global icon and humanitarian. Had Ali been beaten in the fights following his ban, he might very well be a footnote in elementary school Black History Month quizzes. The eventual unpopularity of the Vietnam War most likely would have helped Ali's public profile regardless, but his athletic performance kept him in the spotlight.
There's a reason why Bo Jackson never said anything of social, political, or racial significance during his professional football or baseball careers.
Between the Lines
From a purely football standpoint, when Kaepernick took over the quarterback position from an injured Alex Smith in 2012, his combination of arm strength, speed and athleticism represented a dynamic offensive threat that elevated the 49ers from playoff participants to title contenders. Kaepernick's execution of the read option helped lead the team to the Super Bowl where they came up four points short of a victory, losing to the Baltimore Ravens 34-31.
Kaepernick followed up the 2012 season with another stellar campaign in which the 49ers amassed a record of 12 wins and 4 losses en route to losing a highly competitive matchup with the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship.
In 2014 Kaepernick ran and threw for more yards than in the previous season, but the team finished with an 8-8 record and missed the playoffs.
In 2015, after a 2-6 start, Kaepernick lost his job as the team's starting quarterback to Blaine Gabbert. A shoulder injury and subsequent surgery prevented Kaepernick from returning.
As the 49ers began preparing for the 2016 season, Kaepernick and Gabbert competed for the starting quarterback position, with most experts giving Gabbert the edge.
It was during this preseason period that the national anthem controversy arose.
Backup quarterbacks are practically irrelevant players, so long as the starting quarterback remains healthy. Irrelevant players who create a distraction or disruption are a liability and are more than likely to find themselves unemployed.
With only 32 franchises predominantly owned by wealthy white businessmen with an aversion to anything that could potentially and negatively influence the bottom line, Kaepernick will be unlikely to find another team willing to give him a shot and endure the inevitable public scrutiny and controversy that will accompany him in the event he is released from the 49ers.
Kaepernick has one season, this season, to prove he is not only as good as he was in 2012 and 2013, but even better. — And he's not off to a good start having lost the starting quarterback position to Gabbert.
Kaepernick is already operating at a deficit — declining play and attracting negative attention, from an organizational standpoint, is all bad. Yet history shows he must not only endure, he must thrive.
Or maybe we have entered a new era where supporters of Kaepernick's stand can use technology to overwhelm and suppress the vitriol of the detractors; where supporters of Kaepernick's stand can make his the highest selling jersey (which happened in the wake of the controversy) showing NFL owners there is no financial risk involved with Kaepernick. But perhaps most importantly, Kaepernick's stand can generate not only support for himself, but generate action to rectify the very problems that made the protests of Smith, Carlos, Abdul-Rauf, and Ali necessary in the first place.