In 2040, President (Chelsea) Clinton may welcome Colin Kaepernick to the White House. While the San Francisco 49ers’ mixed-race quarterbacks’s gesture — last Aug. 26 he refused to stand for the U.S. national anthem before an NFL pre-season game — hasn’t stopped making waves in America, on Sept. 30, Barack Obama received Tommie Smith and John Carlos, as well as Jessie Owens’ descendants, at the White House. In one poignant moment, the long history of politics and the much shorter timeline of competitive sports came crashing into each other.
Owens, who brought back four gold medals from under the nose and the mustache of Adolf Hitler at the Berlin Olympic games, was never honored by the White House. Tommie Smith and John Carlos would live as pariahs, excluded from the U.S. Olympic team after having brandished black-gloved fists on the podium at the Mexico games in 1968 after the 200 meter running event.
Kaepernick Intensely Criticized
In 2016, the year of Mohammed Ali’s death — Ali, stripped of his world title in 1967 because he refused to serve in Vietnam, and in the year that marks the 70th anniversary of Jack Johnson’s passing, Johnson being the first black heavy-weight boxing champion — Tommie Smith and John Carlos are “legendary” and “conscientious” athletes who “cleared the way” and “created opportunities,” according to Obama.*
But Kaepernick, who “refused to show his pride for the flag of a country that oppresses blacks and people of color,” is an “ISIS sympathizer,” according to Republican Rep. Steve King, a renegade who “should find a country that works better for him,” according to Donald Trump.
An Action That Has Evolved
Kaepernick may not have to wait as long as Jesse Owens to become another example, in part because by modifying his protest gesture — first seated during the national anthem, then, on the advice of a teammate and ex-Green Beret, with one knee on the ground — he went from a provocative position to one that rattles the U.S. harder than the Trump-Clinton debate. Knee planted on the ground, he’s not declaring war; he’s calling for a truce. An awakening. Here’s an update: His lead was quickly followed by a number of other American athletes.
First came some of his 49er teammates. Then Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall. And four Miami Dolphins players — one on Sept. 11! Jeremy Lane, Seattle Seahawks player, stayed seated. Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters preferred to raise his fist, a gesture also taken up by three Los Angeles Rams players and by two of the New England Patriots players, and which, of course, is a reference to what occurred on the 1968 Mexico podium.
A Movement that Transcends Disciplines
Since the White House, Tommie Smith and John Carlos have given their support to Kaepernick. “There’s no better platform than sport to stand up for something, even if it brings criticism,” John Carlos stressed.
The movement is also being propagated in youth sports where many high school teams have adopted Kaepernick’s bent knee position. It has moved to other sports as well, like soccer — the white player Megan Rapinoe before an international game against Thailand — and tennis.
Serena Williams, who refused to participate in the Indian Wells tournament for 14 years because she felt that she had been a victim of racism there, contributed to the conversation by citing Martin Luther King: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” The San Francisco Chronicle refers to “a renaissance of athletic militarism.”*
A Disapproving Public
Even if the San Francisco player’s number 7 jersey has since become one of the highest selling in the league, the vast majority of the public disapproves of his initiative. For the average fan, patriotism and sports are two sacrosanct ideals. Historically, baseball or football championships have always symbolized a return to normalcy after great turmoil. To enjoy the sport is to enjoy the passing time, an ideal little compatible with political statements. Under pressure to issue sanctions, the NFL limited itself to reminding us that “standing during the national anthem was encouraged but not required.”
These Athletes Have Become Aware of Their Power
Twenty years ago, taking a stand bore heavy consequences. In 1996, Denver Nuggets basketball player Mahmoud Abdul Rauf refused to sing the national anthem for religious reasons. He was only suspended one game but was transferred to Turkey two years later. Today, Joakim Noah, a foreigner to be sure, who refuses to attend a dinner at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point with his team, the New York Knicks, only runs the risk of a few jeers.
In football and basketball, the gap is always bigger between white spectators and visible minority athletes. Although African-Americans make up only 13 to 15 percent of the population living in the U.S., they make up 68 percent of the NFL players and 74 percent of NBA players. Over the years, these athletes have become aware of their economic weight and therefore their power. Last year, basketball players got Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling to resign, forcing him to sell his franchise after racist remarks.
Calls to Athletes of Color
Before Kaepernick, basketball players Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony took advantage of an award ceremony aired on ESPN last July to urge athletes of color to make their voices heard. They were heard by Michael Jordan, the ultimate sports star but a champion criticized for his silence, who, for the first time, made a stand and gave $2 million to two associations.
NBA basketball players planned on taking concerted action on Oct. 25 at the season debut. In solidarity, or aware of the danger, the NBA initiated consultations with the players “to come together and take meaningful action,” according the letter addressed to players by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
*Editor’s Note: This quote, while accurately translated from the source material, is paraphrased from the original speaker.