Last August, during the NFL's preseason, Colin Kaepernick started sitting down during the national anthem.
When a reporter finally noticed what the quarterback was doing, Kaepernick gave a clear justification for his peaceful, 90-second protest: he could no longer turn a blind eye toward the brutality suffered by people of color at the hands of law enforcement. He wanted to open a dialogue about oppression, inequality, and the fact that some police officers avoided consequences after killing innocent, unarmed people in the United States. He believed the lives of those human beings were more important than him or his job, and personal and professional consequences would not stop him.
An extremely vocal portion of the country reacted by asking, But what about the song? That sentiment morphed into gripes about respect for the flag and then, finally, the absurd logical end of this nonsense, Why do you hate the troops and, by extension, America?
Kaepernick wanted the spotlight focused on powerless Americans having their rights trampled and lives taken; the disingenuous right countered with a year-long campaign to discredit Kaepernick and anyone who joined him by pushing a false narrative about disrespecting the troops, who apparently specifically died in every war for a song and a piece of cloth and not the right of Americans to take those knees, or the right to live in a country where police officers don't get to murder citizens without repercussion.
It's heartbreaking to say, but this past Sunday shows that brain-dead argument perpetrated by brain-dead hucksters and embraced by brain-dead people is serving its purpose, by deflecting attention away from the protest's original meaning.
The response by so many athletes to President Sentient Egg Avatar's "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now" statement during a speech in Alabama on Friday was wonderful but also indicative of our current reality: that the stupidest, most duplicitous people have hijacked the conversation Kaepernick started and placed NFL players in a reactionary position. It's no longer about the unchecked police violence and widespread inequality that drove Kaepernick's protest; it's about (almost entirely) black athletes responding to the words of arguably the dumbest person to ever occupy the Oval Office and how much more than half of America hates him.
The unity was inspiring and the support of teams that mustered the backbone to condemn the inflammatory words of the President through a press release was commendable, but what are we talking about now?
Sound bites from those who kneeled, stood together with interlocking arms, or remained in the locker room were seemingly required to include a statement from the player about how much he loves the troops or the flag or America because God forbid he doesn't make that clear for the underhanded snakes ready to pounce from the tall grass and scream about disrespecting a soldier that gave his life, as if that proclamation of love from the players matters to the cretins who would scold them anyway.
Kaepernick capitulated to no one, and it's a likely reason for his current lack of an NFL job. Meanwhile, players who are still employed are now compelled to satisfy the Tammy Lorens of the world when the reality is nothing short of total subordination will ever make people like her happy.
Here's what Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks said about standing arm-in-arm with his teammates during the anthem:
It's one of those things, you're going to stand with your brothers, kneel with your brothers and be by your side. One statement I'd like to make, a lot of people think we're disrespecting the flag and the military but my father was a Marine, my uncle was a Marine, my family fought in the Vietnam war, I have the utmost respect for the men and women who fight for our freedom … The message we're sending is, we just want respect and unity and there's only so many ways you can do it.
And here's what Kaepernick said the first time he was asked about taking a knee:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder. This is not something that I am going to run by anybody. I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed...If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.
The difference in tone is all the evidence required to see that those who would undermine Kaepernick's original purpose have been successful. Cooks took a brave stance but spent more time talking about how much he loves the troops than he did about respect and unity, two vague and nebulous ideas; Kaepernick's message offered no qualifications about flag love and had a clear, sharp point from which he never wavered before being blackballed out of the league.
What if Cooks' father was a teacher and his uncle a janitor? What if no one in his family fought in the Vietnam War? What if members of his family protested the Vietnam War? Would that make Cooks or anyone else less worthy of respect? No, of course it wouldn't. The people who pretend that it matters are the same people who want to treat him as less than a person in the first place.
At best, Kaepernick's specific protest has morphed into a more wide-ranging one about race in America and standing up to a leader of the free world who believes there are good and bad people on both sides of a fight between white supremacists and those who would stand in their way. At worst, though, any movement started by Kaepernick has been stalled by a spin machine—and a President—that clearly cares more about symbols and vague notions of patriotism than people of color.
Kaepernick's protest was a forceful and specific statement that, for people of color, America is not all it's cracked up to be. This weekend's dramatic expansion of athlete protests was reactionary, with many players feeling the need to include a new caveat that they loved America. Disingenuous political leaders, talking heads and media members, and craven opportunists have shifted the conversation from calling out injustice and inequality to offering up patriotic bona fides and asking for unity.
The opportunity is there for players—all players—to recapture control of the narrative Kaepernick authored last August. If this was nothing more than a one-week response to President Wasn't Loved As A Child, he and all the people like him win. He will have fractured and fragmented one of the most important athlete movements in years and rendered it unrecognizable.
But if players create and claim ownership of a new narrative that comes out of this weekend, one that results in an awakening in this country about race and inequity and is more than just holding up a middle finger to a fat old man, Kaepernick's original movement can become more powerful than anyone ever dreamed.