Colin Kaepernick is a real American

Why him? Why now? The roots of the quarterback’s political awakening run deep — beyond his college days at Nevada, beyond his childhood in California — to the core of the country


Charlotte, NC - September 18, 2016: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) walks off the field at Bank of America Stadium with his fist up in the air after their game against the Panthers.(Gerry Melendez for ESPN)

Charlotte, NC – September 18, 2016: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) walks off the field at Bank of America Stadium with his fist up in the air after their game against the Panthers.(Gerry Melendez for ESPN)

An ESPN The Magazine collaboration.

It’s nearly 11 p.m. on a Monday night in the home locker room at Levi’s Stadium, and Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest is keeping his teammates from getting to the shower. His corner locker is surrounded by a crowd waiting to speak to a man who had precisely nothing to do with his team’s season-opening win over the Rams, and a few dirty, irritable and bruised offensive linemen — tired of pushing their way through bodies for the past three hours — are having none of it.

A solution is proposed, and Kaepernick moves to the center of the room. The group, an ectoplasm of microphones and cameras, moves along with him. All around the room, men who made tackles and caught passes and scored touchdowns stand alone at their lockers, watching the show.

As the questions arrive, Kaepernick’s close-set eyes widen into a plea. Why you? he is asked. Why now? “I couldn’t see another hashtag Sandra Bland,” he says, his words like blades. “Hashtag Tamir Rice. Hashtag Walter Scott. Hashtag Eric Garner. This list goes on and on.”

He is practically shouting, strafing his eyes across everyone gathered before him. “At what point do we do something about it? At what point do we take a stand as a people and say this isn’t right?” It’s a remarkable scene. For the past two seasons, these same reporters and this same man engaged in a humorless battle with language. The guy who scored 38 on his pre-draft Wonderlic test — higher than Andrew Luck and Aaron Rodgers — gave the simplest and shortest answers to every question. He was detached and defiant, wounded and challenging, a man who seemed trapped by his profession. And now here he is, inviting questions and talking right through a PR guy’s attempt to end the discussion.

Why Kaepernick? Why now? The story of his emergence as a symbol of protest is a well-timed snapshot of a world in which reasoned debate has dissolved into a screeching band saw of argument and discord. We’re constantly told we live in polarizing times, but it’s not the poles that are in dispute. We need a word that describes the complete absence of middle ground.

As soon as Kaepernick’s intentions were revealed — nobody noticed until he had sat through at least two preseason anthems — an entire ideology was ascribed to him. He was anti-American, anti-military, and in the most pustular of the internet’s lower intestines, it was suggested he was radicalized by a Muslim girlfriend. The issue, it seems, was never the issue; it was his suitability to be the one addressing it. He grew up as an adopted, biracial son of a wealthy white family. He had every advantage. He went from being a Super Bowl quarterback to a $12 million backup, and that word — backup — was fired with malice, meant to sting, as if the worth of a message can be gauged by playing time.

But then teammate Eric Reid knelt beside him in the final preseason game in San Diego. Soon, high school teams knelt. A high school band knelt — while playing the anthem. Peaceful protesters in Charlotte, North Carolina, facing police in riot gear, took a knee to link their cause with a quarterback who hasn’t taken a meaningful snap in nearly a year. A gesture began to feel like a movement, and soon backup lost its sting.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 21:  The Indiana Fever kneel during the National Anthem before the game against the Phoenix Mercury during Round One of the 2016 WNBA Playoffs on September 21, 2016 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  Credit: Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – SEPTEMBER 21: The Indiana Fever kneel during the National Anthem before the game against the Phoenix Mercury during Round One of the 2016 WNBA Playoffs on September 21, 2016 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. Credit: Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images

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