Its one thing to spark debate by refusing to stand for the anthem. But the quarterback now has to take meaningful action if he is to fight injustice
Colin Kaepernick has taken a stand that he cannot walk back. He has announced himself as a rare, strong football voice on social issues, using his standing in Americas game to address some of the countrys most shameful inequalities. He says he wants to start a conversation in the San Francisco 49ers locker room and, God knows, sports teams need to talk about more than how to make a pile of money.
But his most important move will be what he does next. Its one thing to spark debate by not standing for the national anthem and repeating a few statements about people being murdered unjustly and whats really going on in this country. Its another to actually make a difference. Thats where the real work comes. That means talking every day about serious issues such as police brutality, racial stereotyping and a system weighted toward the rich. That means convincing other athletes to join in. That means going to rallies and protests and city council meetings and demanding to be heard.
If Kaepernick is going to be the voice against racial oppression he wants to become, he will have to do more than refuse to stand for the national anthem. Otherwise, last Fridays protest will be remembered as an odd and awkward gesture that drowned the substance of his points.
Great leadership can come at odd times. And it may very well be that at 28 years old, in his sixth NFL season, Kaepernick has found his voice. One former NFL player who has tried to motivate athletes to take action on racial inequality, told the Guardian on Monday that he was impressed with the way Kaepernick used the Star-Spangled Banner to make his stand, given the song was written by Francis Scott Key, a man who believed African Americans to be inferior to whites. He said he hopes Kaepernick will be as thoughtful in his messages going forward, directing players of all races to confront problems many would rather avoid.
I think hes making the bet that other players will get behind him, the former player said. Thats the only way this moves on.
Then the player paused. Because even he, out of the league for a few years, understands the concern that many players have about Kaepernick that he is not a natural leader. That even though he plays the biggest leadership position on the field and once took the 49ers within yards of winning a Super Bowl, he has been a distant presence in the locker room. Coaches have always raved about his intellect but hes also been seen as aloof, not the kind to front a movement. His performance has deteriorated to the point where he lost his starting job last season and has done little to win it back. If he stays on with the Niners he will most likely be a backup. That is a far drop from being one of the leagues best young quarterbacks as he was in 2012 and 2013.