“The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World”| Reviewed by Bill Schwab
On August 14th, 2016, San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench as his teammates stood on the sidelines while the game opened with the national anthem.
Few people noticed his posture at this preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, but Steve Wyche, a reporter for the NFL Network saw his action and asked him why he did it. The quarterback explained, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.” After a conversation with Green Beret and NFL player Nate Boyer, Kaepernick decided to take a knee at the next game.
The quarterback's quiet protest generated a storm of reactions ranging from support to vitriol. As author Dave Zirin puts it: “The athletic industrial complex, including their allies in the media, immediately went into motion to ensure that Kaepernick would become a cautionary tale.” This book chronicles those reactions and the effects of Kaepernick’s action on American society.
In 2021 it is difficult to recap all the outcomes of Kaepernick’s peaceful protest. His simple deed raised significant questions about the role of professional athletes in drawing attention to current social issues. It also raised fundamental questions about the position professional sports leagues should take in supporting or silencing the sociopolitical messages of their employees.
In Kaepernick’s case, under pressure from presidential candidate Donald Trump, prominent liberal and conservative politicians, media personalities, and fans, the NFL established a ban on kneeling during the national anthem. Within a year Kaepernick had been made persona non grata in the NFL. He was banned, lost all his endorsement contracts and was unemployed. Yet he eventually became a symbol of social activism as the Black Lives Matter movement gained force after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Athletes from all the professional sports teams began speaking out in increasing numbers. Many sports celebrities repeated Kaepernick's sentiments, some followed his lead and knelt during the national anthem and others wore his number on their jersey.
Zirin reports that the difference in the responses made by the National Basketball Association (75% Black) and the National Football League (70% Black) was stark. The NBA stated support of Black Lives Matter while the NFL was silent until 18 of its standout players released a video demanding that their employer make a statement. Finally, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a video, saying he should have listened to the players earlier.
Kaepernick’s decision to protest the police shootings of unarmed Black people made him a pariah in the NFL yet had the eventual effect of emboldening pro and amateur players across the United States to speak out against racism. Zirin includes stories of little known high school and collegiate athletes who took a stand, as well as top professional and Olympic athletes in many sports who elected to stand up for what they believed, even when it placed their reputations at risk. Firsthand accounts of these players from high school, college, and professional leagues fill the 219 pages of Zirin’s book and testify to the societal changes that can be initiated by one person's action.
About the Author: Dave Zirin is an author, journalist, podcaster and sportswriter. He has written widely about the intersection of sports politics and modern culture. He is the sports columnist for The Nation and The Progressive. The New Press is the publisher of this thoroughly indexed book.