Colin Kaepernick and the tipping point for athlete expression in a post-Ferguson America

Colin Kaepernick has undergone an awakening, and it manifested itself in his decision to sit during the national anthem in protest of America’s woeful history of race relations.

San Francisco Police Officer Association President Martin Halloran earlier this week wrote an open letter to the San Francisco 49ers demanding CEO Jed York denounce Kaepernick’s actions and called for an apology from the quarterback for, among other things, a “total lack of sensitivity towards police officers.”

In this post-Ferguson America, it seems increasingly untenable to ignore calls for police reform. Citizens are able to hold police accountable, to an extent, with cell phones and information is more accessible than ever.

Kaepernick’s actions are just the latest in a series of prominent athletes speaking out on social issues in recent years, and he might represent a tipping point after which the gates will be open for all players, not just superstars.

The shooting of Michael Brown in 2014 catalyzed a watershed moment for this phenomena, starting with members of the then-St. Louis Rams entering the field with their arms up to signify, “Hands up, don’t shoot.” It progressed with NBA stars wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts in response to the death of Eric Garner in New York. More recently, WNBA players this summer watched as police officers left their security posts because they were offended by the form of the players’ protest to a string of shooting deaths.

Now, we have a quarterback — the most visible position, on one of the most storied franchises, in the country’s most profitable league — sitting down for what he believes.

Activists from the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition protested outside the POA headquarters on Wednesday to send a message that Kaepernick’s actions have resonated with the community and that the 49ers should not bow to Halloran’s demands.

“It’s extraordinarily important because a person like him can ignite a movement,” civil rights attorney John Burris told me at the site of the protest. “… There’s a lot more sense of people thinking about the issues of police brutality, and this is another step along the way. It’s a long march and it’s not over, but it is a march.”

Athletes doubling as activists, of course, is nothing new.

Before Kaepernick, there was Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson (who also refused to salute the flag) and Jim Brown.

Many who’ve slammed Kap, like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and actor Chris Meloni among others, are the same who celebrated Ali’s life of struggle and opposition in the pursuit of justice when he passed earlier this year.

And it should be noted that when those legendary athletes spoke out, it wasn’t greeted favorably by the powers that be. The same is true for Kaepernick. His treatment by the general public will get worse before it gets better. What’s important is that, ultimately, history will view his decision to cause many to bristle in the name of equality as right.

He will have to sacrifice, as representatives from the ACLU, Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam acknowledged during Wednesday’s protest. Many surmised this move will most likely cost him his career as an NFL quarterback.

“This stand wasn’t for me,” Kaepernick told reporters on Sunday. “This stand wasn’t because I feel like I’m being put down in any kind of way. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people who don’t have a voice, people who don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard and affect change. I’m in a position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people who can’t.”

Kap is fighting for those who can’t and, for that, he should be celebrated.

In response to the protest, Halloran released a statement affirming the coalition’s First Amendment rights to speak their minds and demand change.

I applaud the POA president for his defense of the Constitution. I now ask him to extend those same sentiments to Kaepernick himself.

In the meantime, it’s imperative for athletes like Kaepernick to use their prominence to move the struggle forward.

So continue to sit, Kap. Don’t stop fighting.

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