Kneeling Down to Take a Stand

Colin Kaepernick is not playing football anymore, but he’s still winning.

After leading the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013 and the NFC Championship in 2014, Colin Kaepernick has been exiled from the NFL for using the football field as a political platform.

By refusing to stand during the national anthem in August 2016, Kaepernick drew attention to the United States’ hegemonic narrative that oppresses, murders, and silences Black people.

Last March, Kaepernick officially opted out of a renewal contract with the 49ers with the expectation of being signed by another NFL team, but all 32 NFL teams have refused to sign him since.

Arguments that detach Kaepernick’s activism from his unemployment are illegitimate. Kaepernick was ranked the 23nd best quarterback in 2016 by ESPN, recorded a quarterback rating of 90.7, and was ranked the 17th best in passer ratings. His former coach Chip Kelly stated, “Do I think he is one of the top 64 quarterbacks in the world? … Does he have the ability to play quarterback on a winning team in the NFL? There is no question.”

So why have 38 other quarterbacks – most of whom with inferior passing records, some who have not started or won a game in years, and Jay Cutler, a retired 34-year-old – been signed over Kaepernick?

The answer bears no mystery. The NFL has exiled Kaepernick because he is a Black man who challenged the deeply embedded institutional, educational, and political systems of domination that continue to dehumanize, oppress, and murder Black people.

Historically, through the interplay of pseudoscience and literature, the construction of race and white supremacy has justified and normalized the domination of Black people. For example, white scientists used craniometry, the measurement of human skulls, to conclude that Black people were biologically and intellectually inferior. Such results were perpetuated through scholarship, such as "The Indigenous Races of the Earth," the 1857 book that further dehumanized Black people by claiming that “negroes” occupied the evolutionary gap between chimpanzees and Greeks.

Although contemporary manifestations of racism are now subtle, and overt forms of racism are no longer acceptable – although even this is questionable after Charlottesville – the legitimation of racism and white superiority through academia has continuously enabled the silencing and subjugation of people of color. The insidious nature of systems of oppression, of course, is that they tend to stay in place.

In August 2016, Kaepernick’s first two protests against the national anthem went unacknowledged. However, after Kaepernick’s third demonstration and explanation that he was “not going to stand to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people,” he faced incessant criticism and even death threats.

This past weekend, a number of other NFL players knelt in solidarity with Kaepernick. Trump referred to them as “sons of bitches” that should be fired. Sponsors are also dropping players who knelt in protest. Why?

Trump’s reaction to the players’ resistance reveals it all. He condemned the form of protest, claiming it was a “total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for.” He’s not wrong: Kaepernick and the players who followed his lead indeed disrespected the United States’ heritage – specifically, its heritage of white supremacy.

Trump’s previous and current attacks on Kaepernick are exemplary of system justification - a psychological term that describes a rather intuitive concept: people who benefit from unjust systems will rush to the defense of the ideologies that uphold them.

Kaepernick may never play in another NFL match, but by refusing to stand for the national anthem and the U.S. flag, he effectively achieved his goal, drawing mass attention to current manifestations of anti-blackness and the system that perpetuates it.

He’s winning off the field, not by scoring touchdowns or competing for the Super Bowl, but by establishing a legacy of resistance against white supremacy on the biggest stage in the United States.