By Connie Wardman, M.A., SDLT (She/Her)

When you mention Colin Kaepernick, many people think of him only as the star NFL San Francisco 49ers quarterback who, in 2016 ruined his career by kneeling during the national anthem. Rather than listen to why he was protesting, a large group of Americans, including President Trump who continually fanned the flames for political advantage, accused him of disrespecting the flag and those who fought to defend it. It became a huge national controversy with Kaepernick becoming its unintentional poster child.

Kaepernick was taking a knee to protest police brutality and racial oppression and injustice but his reasons to protest got lost in the noise of that NFL season. Through that small act of kneeling, however, he has reenergized the civil rights movement of the 60s and become a civil rights icon for this time in history. He is the catalyst for the social justice movement by the many Black professional athletes we see today.


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They’re speaking out on Black Lives Matter (BLM), on the systemic racism and police brutality that still oppresses Black and Brown people today; they’re sharing their personal stories of police harassment, talking about their fear for the safety of their children and using their platform to battle voter suppression. It’s even included WNBA members as a group working to defeat Atlanta Dream owner, Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler’s reelection after she wrote that “The Black Lives Matter political organization advocates things like defunding and abolishing the police, abolishing our military, emptying our prisons, destroying the nuclear family. It promotes violence and antisemitism.”

Colin Kaepernick seems like an unlikely catalyst at first glance, though. He’s still a free agent with the NFL but hasn’t been signed to a team since 2016 even though he still wants to play and works out five days a week. He’s the rare professional athlete-turned-fulltime social activist who has managed to stay out of the limelight as he continues to better the lives of Black, Brown and other underserved people. Having pledged $1 million at the end of 2016 to support the issues that caused him to kneel, by December 2017 here’s where the money had gone:

According to Sports Illustrated, of the $1 million he pledged – his donations to date had gone to:

  • Anti-police brutality $150,000 – 16.7%
  • Youth initiatives $209,000 – 23.2%
  • Community reform and minority empowerment $233,000 – 25.8%
  • Health reform and nourishment $283,000 – 31.4%
  • Climate change awareness – $25,000 – 2.8%

Kaepernick sees his philanthropic work as an investment in his community rather than just charity work. He spends computer time personally searching for grassroots organizations in cities and towns large and small that are serving their Black, Brown and underserved communities, all without drawing attention to himself. Few of these recipients have ever met him.

But others have noticed what he’s been doing. In 2017 he received Sports Illustrated’s Muhammad Ali Legacy Award to honor him for his courage to give up what he loved for what he believed in, and the ACLU presented him with the Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate Award. The next year the global human rights organization Amnesty International awarded Kaepernick its highest honor, the Ambassador of Conscience Award.

Augusta Quiney, director of art for Amnesty has likened him to U.S. track stars John Carlos and Tommy Smith who raised a fist on the medals stand at the 1968 Mexico Olympics to protest civil rights abuses in America and to Muhammad Ali who spoke out against the war in Vietnam and went to jail for refusing to serve in the military. All three of these athletes were vilified as a consequence of their actions. Yet people’s opinions changed over time and eventually they were honored for their courage.

So it’s been for Kaepernick. With the 2020 killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and especially the horrific public execution of Floyd George – where white Americans had to watch the eight minutes and forty-six seconds it took for him to die while three policemen stood by watching as policeman Derek Chauvin kept unrelenting pressure on his neck – Americans in 2020 can no longer in good conscience deny the police brutality and racial injustice that caused Kaepernick to kneel in 2016.

According to a recent Monmouth University poll, a majority of Americans believe police officers are more likely to treat Black people more unfairly than white people. And over three-fourths of the U.S. (including 71 percent of white Americans) believe “racial and ethnic discrimination is a big problem in the United States.” This is a 26-percentage-point spike from four years ago when Kaepernick was largely dismissed by the public as a troublemaker. But by 2018 the NFL approved kneeling as a protest during the national anthem. And in 2020 NFL commissioner Roger Goodell apologized to Kaepernick, saying he wished the league had listened to his reason for kneeling sooner.

But people still want to know why Kaepernick knelt. Didn’t he know he know he could lose his job? The Kaepernicks are a very close family of faith and have always been extremely supportive of Colin. His actions are a direct result of how he was raised. Kaepernick knew from the beginning that it could damage his football career. Responding to the criticism he received, he said, “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”

White couple Teresa and Rick Kaepernick adopted biracial Colin when he was just five weeks old and lovingly raised him in a white home with white siblings. Colin’s birth father was a black man, his birth mother a single 19-year-old white girl who put him up for adoption. The public that originally dismissed him as nothing more than a troublemaker has failed to understand him as a bright, introspective biracial man growing up in a white family who, since college has been on a serious quest to find his place in a white world.

One of Kaepernick’s important global initiatives is his Know Your Rights Camps with a mission “to advance the liberation and well-being of Black and Brown communities through education, self-empowerment, mass-mobilization and the creation of new systems that elevate the next generation of change leaders.”

The purpose of these free closed day-long sessions is to talk directly with young Black, Brown and economically disadvantaged students who have been invited through local community organizations about history, education, nutrition, financial literacy and legal rights. Their T-shirts list their 10 rights: to be free, healthy, brilliant, safe, loved, courageous, alive, trusted, educated and “to know your rights.”

Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation covered a 2017 camp in Chicago where Kaepernick shared this with the students: “I love my family to death. They’re the most amazing people I know. But when I looked in the mirror, I knew I was different. Learning what it meant to be an African man in America, not a black man but an African man, was critical for me. Through this knowledge, I was able to identify myself and my community differently…

“I thought I was from Milwaukee. I thought my ancestry started at slavery and I was taught in school that we were all supposed to be grateful just because we aren’t slaves. But what I was able to do was trace my ancestry and DNA lineage back to Ghana, Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and saw my existence was more than just being a slave. It was as an African man. We had our own civilizations, and I want you to know how high the ceiling is for our people. I want you to know that our existence now is not normal. It’s oppressive. For me, identifying with Africa gave me a higher sense of who I was, knowing that we have a proud history and are all in this together.”

He went on tell the students that they were all getting backpacks and Ancestry DNA kits inside so they could trace their own ancestry and connect with any potential lost relatives.

For those who still wonder why Kaepernick really decided to knowingly jeopardize a lucrative dream NFL career, who want to hear it directly from the source, it’s time. Kaepernick recently announced that he’s writing his memoir to be released this year through Kaepernick Publishing, his new company in partnership with Audible.

Additionally he’s working on a six-episode Netflix series with Ava DuVernay, the filmmaker behind “Selma” and “13th.” Entitled “Colin in Black & White,” it focuses on his early years as a Black child growing up in a white adoptive family and his formative years in high school. “Colin’s story,” said DuVernay “has much to say about identity, sports and the enduring spirit of protest and resilience.” Most stories are told from a white perspective but Kaepernick, who will narrate the series says that “We seek to give new perspective to the differing realities that Black people face. We explore the racial conflicts I faced as an adopted Black man in a white community, during my high school years.”

Several people have compared Kaepernick to Muhammad Ali as the next important civil rights icon for this time. Although we must wait a bit for his own explanations as to why he’s done what he’s done in life, I agree with the comparison to Ali and suspect his vision of stewardship matches Kaepernick’s:

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

Muhammad Ali

Photo by Mike Morbeck