On Sept. 1, 2016, Colin Kaepernick knelt down on a football field to send a silent message. By declining to stand for the national anthem before a San Francisco 49ers preseason game, the team’s mixed-race quarterback said, he was protesting the treatment of people of color in the U.S., particularly a spate of police shootings of unarmed black men.
Bigger than football, indeed. In the ensuing weeks and months, Kaepernick’s decision to kneel (which he repeated in subsequent games) set off a nationwide eruption of hot takes and high-profile gestures of support or condemnation for an act of quiet defiance that — depending on which side of the issue you came down on — represented everything that was good or bad about America.
Even the start of a new NFL season couldn’t tamp down the controversy. If anything, it further escalated it: In September 2017, President Donald Trump sent out a series of tweets slamming and calling for the suspension or firing of NFL players who refused to stand during the national anthem. In response, many teams knelt or locked arms together on the field or even refused to come out of the locker room for the anthem at their next games. The issue continued to roil the league for weeks and eventually led to a meeting between NFL team owners, executives and players to find ways “to work together to promote positive social change and address inequality in our communities.”
By then, the man who’d started it all was out of a job. Last March, Kaepernick cut ties with the 49ers, and since then, no NFL club has shown any interest in signing the 30-year-old quarterback who took his team to the Super Bowl just five years ago. A few months ago, he filed a grievance against the NFL alleging that team owners had colludedto keep him out of the game due to his protest acts.
It was the closest the public had come in some time to “hearing” from Kaepernick, who gives few interviews and instead seems to have adopted a tactic of letting his own actions speak louder than everyone else’s words. He funds “Know Your Rights Camps” for youths, and on that same September 2016 day when he knelt for the first time, he also pledged to donate $1 millionto organizations working in “oppressed communities.” By last month, he’d made good on it, parceling out sizable donations to everything from a college readiness program at a Harlem charter school to a mobile health clinic being created for the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas.
The final grant of $10,000 went to H.O.M.E., a Lithonia-based nonprofit that helps rebuild, restore and refurnish homes for working or in-school mothers who are “emerging from divorce, domestic violence or in desperate need of starting over.” What’s more, Kaepernick announced on Twitterthat Atlanta music superstar Usher was providing a matching $10,000 donation to H.O.M.E.
While some people likely will never stop criticizing Kaepernick for what he did, to others, it’s what he’s done ever since taking a knee that really matters. The man without a team to play for was named GQ magazine’s “2017 Citizen of the Year”; he also received the 2017 Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, given to someone who “embodies the ideals of sportsmanship, leadership and philanthropy and has used sports as a platform for changing the world.”
Said Lonnie Ali, the champ’s widow: “Like Muhammad, Colin is a man who stands on his convictions with confidence and courage, undaunted by the personal sacrifices he has had to make to have his message heard.”
And when the NFL Players Association named its five finalists for this year’s Byron “Whizzer” White Community MVP award on Jan. 23, four had played in the league this year.
The fifth was Colin Kaepernick.
Throughout February, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution put a daily spotlight on different African-American pioneers in celebration of Black History Month. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for the whole 28-part series and for more subscriber exclusives and videos of the people, places and organizations that changed the world.