“The Kaepernick Effect:” How Taking a Knee Began a Movement

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And now, we continue our look at the intersection of sport and politics with the kneel, as I’ve said, that ignite ad movement. Earlier, we talked about football star, Colin Kaepernick, who made waves back in 2016 for taking a knee during the national anthem. A silent protest against police brutality and racial inequality in America. Now. sports writer, Dave Zirin, examines the lasting impact of this moment in his new book called “The Kaepernick Effect.” And here he is talking to Hari Sreenivasan about it.


HARI SREENIVASAN: Christiane, thanks. Dave Zirin, thanks so much for joining us.

DAVE ZIRIN, AUTHOR, “THE KAEPERNICK EFFECT”: Thanks. It’s great to be here.

SREENIVASAN: So “The Kaepernick Effect,” for perhaps our overseas audience, the book really talks about the effect of Colin Kaepernick had. But for people who might not have been paying attention over these years, what did Colin Kaepernick do in 2016 that started this all?

ZIRIN: What Colin Kaepernick did was he took the protest that was taking place throughout the United States against police violence and against racial inequity and he brought it to the National Football League. Particularly, he brought it to the National Anthem space, where he would take a knee during the National Anthem as a way to highlight the gap between the promises of the anthem and the promises of the United States and the lived reality of far too many black Americans. That’s “The Kaepernick Effect.” The replication of that protest in small towns and big cities around the United States.

SREENIVASAN: It was a controversial response when Colin Kaepernick did it. And what’s fascinating about your book is you find these teams and these individuals, these athletes that weren’t just kind of band wagoning when it was safe to do so. They were thinking about it and they were deciding to do this as well. Let’s start with the story that you have of Garfield High School. I grew up in Seattle and know Garfield High School pretty well. Had to compete against them. But what happened there?

ZIRIN: Well, at Garfield High School something very interesting happened. And this goes with the broader theme of the book that what Colin Kaepernick provided for student likes the football and soccer players and softball players at Garfield was not so much an inspiration as in, let’s do this for Colin Kaepernick or let’s do this because Colin Kaepernick did it. What Colin Kaepernick provided was a language, was a lexicon, was a method of struggle by which athletes who were feeling in their hearts that there was something very wrong with this country. And he gave them a language by which to put those ideas and those concerns into practice. Namely by taking a knee during the national anthem. And it started with the football team at Garfield because they had a coach there named Joey Thomas who heard that a couple of the players were talking about it, and he turned it into a team issue. He said to them, wait a minute, you know, if you are going to take a knee during this anthem, if you are going to protest racial inequity, you need to know what you are talking about. And so, we’re going to have a discussion about that. And then after the discussion, we’re either going to do it as a team or we’re not going to do it at all. And so, they spoke as a team about Trayvon Martin, the young man who was killed by George Zimmerman about 10 years ago. They spoke about a woman named Charleena Lyles who was killed by Seattle Police. And made the decision that they were going take this knee together. And they did so and it had an effect on the school where other students said, I want to do that too because I’m also upset about the balance of things in Seattle which has, you know, this reputation of a very liberal city. But they were seeing some of the contradictions with that liberalism in terms of how the small black population in the city was being treated. And when that took place, they expected to be embraced because it is Seattle. And on some level, they were embraced by a lot of people in the community for taking that step. But they also were subject to a terrible backlash. Coach Thomas found himself pushed out of his job. The tires on his car were slashed. Death threats were reported into the school. But when I spoke to the students who had taken part in it, they had absolutely no regrets whatsoever. If anything, what they felt was a tremendous amount of pride and a tremendous amount of vindication for standing up when so many people were not doing so.

SREENIVASAN: It is always harder when you are standing up and let’s say, this is an impressionable age. You are 15, you are 16 years old and when you don’t have the support of your peers, when you see this kind of criticism, that is a different kind of, well, guts and intestinal fortitude for teenagers to have.

ZIRIN: And I think teenagers get such a rep — a bad rep, I’m sorry, in this country where they are derided for being apathetic, but then, when they do something, they are derided for doing something. It’s like the only thing worse than apathy for a teenager in eyes of many adults is actually doing something. And I think what these students learned was that they were going to get criticism but they were also going to start conversations, and that is what they so desperately wanted to do. And what I also learned by talking to people — it didn’t matter if I was talking to people in Seattle, Washington or people in Beaumont, Texas or in Upstate New York or in Florida, one of the things that they all had in common is that they were all very young, nine, 10, 11 years old when Trayvon Martin was killed. And we spoke about earlier, and when that young man was killed, it had this scarring effect on them. It had a traumatic effect on them, where they just never forgot what it felt like to be in a country where not only could you be killed as a young black kid but also the person who killed you would not face justice when it was all said and done. For these young people, it reminded me a lot of stories I read about the Civil Rights Movement and how young civil rights activists were affected by the death of Emmett Till in the mid-1950s and the pictures of his mistaken distorted body in “Jet” magazine. It was so similar, it echoed, this idea that they saw this when they were young and it just scarred them, it made them feel like they had to do something throughout their loves. And what Colin Kaepernick provided was a way, was a method by which they could express their dissatisfaction.

SREENIVASAN: You know, tell me a little bit about what was the story in Beaumont, Texas?

ZIRIN: I mean, Beaumont, Texas involved an entire youth football team that decided that they were going to kneel because — and these are like kids. And like, young kids, like 11, 12, 13 years old. And they felt like — the Beaumont Bulls felt like they wanted to kneel, I mean, partially because of the what Colin Kaepernick did felt like it was emboldening partly because their coach was willing to support them for doing it, partly because there were some parents who very supportive in them doing it. What they didn’t expect was the backlash. And the backlash was so intense that not only the team but the league was canceled because of what they did. They completely kicked — I mean, it was just like OK. Rather than having anyone kneel, there will actually be no football. And this was in Texas for goodness sakes.

SREENIVASAN: Right. Where Friday night life is a religion.

ZIRIN: Yes. I mean, this would be like banning soccer in Brazil or banning pizza in New York. And this is what they did. And — but when I spoke to one of the young people and when I spoke to mother of one of the young people, I mean, again, that sense of pride. And actually, in the Beaumont Bulls’ case, there were several NFL players who then donated money and equipment so they could start a new team. And so, that’s a story that is really interesting because it is about solidarity and it’s about the connection between the pros and what happens at the most basic level of youth sports.

SREENIVASAN: You also dived into several — the phrase is usually student athletes, but people who are performing at a very high level in college. And you picked, one of the athletes was interesting to me, was a cheerleader who decided to take steps and how she was perceived and the challenges that she faced.

ZIRIN: Yes. Sydney Stallworth at Howard University. I thought that story was really interesting because there is a lot of discussion these days about historically black colleges and universities and what they can, in fact, provide. And what Sydney Stallworth found, both at Howard and both in the broader D.C. community was a tremendous amount of support. And I thought it was interesting that they took these actions when the football team didn’t take these actions. Because a lot of college athletes would not take this step not because they didn’t agree with the movement, but because they really did feel like if they stepped out of line, they could get in trouble with their coach, they might get kicked off the team, college athletes in this country, their scholarships are renewed on an annual basis. So, there is a huge fear factor. And the cheerleaders didn’t show that fear factor. Sydney was one of only – – with many cheerleaders that I spoke to who took part in this. And I just found that really interesting because cheerleading is often, first of all, derided as not being a real sport. And second of all, seen as ancillary to what’s happening on the field. And these cheerleaders felt the send that they needed to take leadership precisely because the football team would not.

SREENIVASAN: The idea the student athlete should be compensated, that has been debated for quite some time but it seemed like it picked up more traction post Kaepernick, post George Floyd, and it’s almost like if you start to write the history of that, these other events kind of had to happen for them to get a seat at the table.

ZIRIN: Absolutely. Similarly, the Washington football team, and I live in the D.C. area, they decided to change their name from what was perceived as a racial slur against native Americans post Kaepernick as well. And I’ve talked to a lot of indigenous activists and they all say the same thing, they said, it was the intervention of the Black Lives Matter movement that made having that name untenable for the Washington football team. And it’s similarly with athletes getting paid. And it reminded me of something that 1968 Olympian John Carlos said to me. Where he said to me, you know the reason why athletic salaries went up in the 1970s with the growth of free agency? It was because I raised that fist at the Olympics and Tommy Smith raised that fist at the ’68 Olympics, because it made them realize that there would be a larger revolt on their hands if they didn’t loosen the purse strings. I think there’s been a similar dynamic over the last five years where it just gave a lot of people in power that they felt like they were looking at a canary in the coal mine, so to speak, and realized there needed to be some kind of reform or else the whole system could implode.

SREENIVASAN: I don’t think people, at least of younger generations will recognize that activism and athletics went together decades ago. But if you grew up, say, in the ’80s or the ’90s, you didn’t really see athletes stepping out and expressing their opinion. You saw them make a lot of money. And that was the sort of end all. Wow, I want to be like Michael Jordan because look at him, he’s not only a great athlete, but he’s so wealthy because look at all the endorsement deals. And so — you know. But you didn’t say, wow, I want to be Michael Jordan because listen to his position on apartheid.

ZIRIN: Right. That was never said about Michael Jordan. But I think we’ve seen such a sea change over the last 10 years. And the reasons for it to me are threefold why you have seen this huge political change in sports. The first is just the existence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Like the 1960s, having a movement off the field is critical to see political confidence ricochet on the field. The second reason is social media. Athletes being able to speak directly to their audience and feel like they can have a political influence on what happens around them. Social media has been empowering for these athletes. And the last reason, honestly is Lebron James. Because he — the basketball superstar has decided that he is going to be a political person. It started for him after the killing of Trayvon Martin. Like for these young athletes I talk about, when he posed for a photo with his Miami Heat teammates with his hood over his head, that became like the first viral sports politics photo of the Twitter age. And what Lebron James has done is basically bent the NBA and it’s had a ripple effect throughout the WNBA, throughout the NFL, of course. And he bent it to say, we have the right to be political. We don’t sign away our beliefs just because we can putt a ball in a hoop.

SREENIVASAN: One thing I wonder is, right now, we’re also in a conversation about what does an employer have a right to ask of an employee, for example, in the case of vaccinations? So, if there is some sort of mandate that comes down from a boss that says, in this case, you are not allowed to take a knee, what happens? I mean, aren’t technically employees responsible for the wins of their bosses and their organizations they work for?

ZIRIN: Well, there are a couple of very good arguments that NFL players have made and could make if they are faced with that situation. The first argument is that the place they are taking a knee is effectively public square more than a private entity. Given the amount of public funds that go into building stadiums and given the amount of public interaction. I mean, most of us don’t work in front of 70,000 people. You know, that is public kind of presentation more than it is a private business. The second thing is that the National Anthem really has nothing to do with what they do on the field of play. I mean, if a player decided to take a knee on the 50-yard line in middle of a third down and six situation, then by all means fire them. But if a player does it during the anthem,something that, by the way, the NFL players didn’t even have to come out for until 2007, I believe it was, as part of a connection that was made between the Pentagon and the National Football League, a financial partnership called Tribute to the Troops. If that wasn’t the, sort of, surrounding politics of the event itself, then one might have a case to say that players are risking their jobs. But what they are doing is a public act of speech I would argue.

SREENIVASAN: The majority of the league are people of color. And yet, the ownership is almost all white, correct me if I’m wrong. But it was such a tougher climb to try to change the NFL, especially when you had the president at the time calling players who were kneeling names.

ZIRIN: Yes. I mean this was a very difficult dynamic for players in the National Football League. First and foremost, the average NFL career is only three years and the contracts are not guaranteed. So, if you lose your place on a roster, I mean, you are probably not going to find your way back on to one. So, there is a tremendous amount of risk involved, particularly given the sums of money at play. And NFL owners, and I chart this on the basis of political donations, tend to be extremely right wing in their politics. Yet, they can’t just come down on players and say, we’re going to kick you all out of the league for doing this, because then they wouldn’t have players in and of themselves. So, I would argue that the NFL ownership structure has undergone a very carrot and stick approach to these protests. You know, the carrot has been they put slogans on the field like end racism. Players can put Black Lives Matter decals on their helmets. That is something new. They’ve started social justice coalitions of players in the league. All of that is the carrot. But the stick is that Colin Kaepernick, never able to find his way back onto a team. His two cohorts, both of whom I interview in the book, Eric Reid and Kenny Stills, are free agents right now. They don’t have a place on NFL roster. And these players are used as ghost stories by management as a way to say to young players, don’t step out of line or you could end up on the outside looking in. So, it’s been a very carrot and stick approach by the National Football League.

SREENIVASAN: Has there been any measurable impacts on the revenue and viewership of sports? Because one of the critiques from the right and from Former President Trump has been, oh, look. Look at the ratings, they are so horrible now because of all these athletes taking a knee.

ZIRIN: I’m so glad you asked that question because that’s been one of the biggest canards over the last five years that fans would be driven away by athletes protesting. It is true that sports ratings dropped dramatically during the first year of the pandemic. And a lot of folks rushed to that conclusion, oh, it must be the politics that is pushing people away. And yet, Marist College did a very helpful and very in-depth poll. And what they found was people weren’t watching sports because of the pandemic. I mean, sports are about fun and play. Like Sports Writer Jane McManus said, sports are the reward for having a functioning society. And without society functioning, there was just far less of a thirst to actually know, particularly an election year, to actually know who was, you know, winning the A.L. East. It just — it was far lower than people’s priority lists. So, it was less politics and more this once in a century pandemic.

SREENIVASAN: Is it safe now to protest? Is it safe now to take a knee?

ZIRIN: It depends on the situation. I mean, I would say no. And the fact that it is not safe is precisely what gives it its power. I mean, ironically, in some places, particularly in English soccer, you see a lot of players taking a knee and it is kind of a team activity. And that, I would argue, is less effective precisely because it is safe. So, it’s when you are willing to rebel, it’s when you are willing to make people uncomfortable that it actually has use value for a movement.

SREENIVASAN: The book is called “The Kaepernick Effect.” Dave Zirin, thanks so much for joining us.

ZIRIN: Well, thank you so much.

About This Episode EXPAND

Ken Burns discusses his new documentary “Muhammad Ali.” 7-time Grand Slam champion John McEnroe weighs in on this year’s tournament. Sports journalist Dave Zirin explains how football player Colin Kaepernick sparked an international social movement by kneeling during the national anthem.