Colin Kaepernick: Sports hero who became the face of the war against racism

Who: In August 2016, when Colin Kaepernick, the starting quarterback for San Francisco 49ers’ third pre-season game, did not stand up for the “Star-Spangled Banner”, a lot of people didn’t get it. He later explained: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” In the next match, he chose to bend on one knee, out of respect to the military personnel, while continuing with his protest during the US national anthem. “There are bodies on the street and people are getting paid leave and getting away with murders,” Kaepernick told reporters at a post-match press conference. His move divided his nation.

What: A few days earlier, Alton Sterling, 37, known as “CD Man” in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had been tackled to the ground and shot six times in the chest and back by two policemen, who were then not tried under criminal charges. This was not the first time a black man had been killed by white policemen allegedly in cold blood. Kaepernick had the dashcam video of the incident pinned on his Instagram.

How: Kaepernick’s defiance reminded many of Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ raised fists at the podium of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico — a gesture that came to be recognised as the Black Power Salute. It also recalled the life of Jesse Owens, the four-time gold medalist at the Berlin Olympics in 1938, who, even after the feat, raced with horses and worked as a gas station attendant to earn a living. Owens is today recognised among the greatest athletes in history.

Times might have changed for African-American athletes since, but perhaps not for the defiant ones. “This is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” Kaepernick had said at the start of his on-field protest. And he’s paying the price for it.

Since he opted out of the contract with 49ers, none of the National Football League (NFL) teams have expressed interest in hiring Kaepernick. The two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback has accused NFL of systematically keeping him off the field.

Yet, Kaepernick’s face is on billboards all over the US. Nike’s new campaign to celebrate 30 years of its iconic tagline, “Just Do It”, has a picture of Kaepernick’s close-up with the tagline: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” A reflection of what the brand believes has been the footballer’s life.

Where: This has put Nike under fire, literally. People have been posting pictures and videos of burning their Nike trainers and apparel. Hashtags #Justburnit and #BoycottNike have been trending all week. US President Donald Trump has said the campaign sends a “terrible message”, but the company is not backing down. Trump Jr, meanwhile, shared a doctored picture of his father’s face, instead of Kaepernick’s, on the campaign poster with the same caption. Twitter had a good laugh.

The retractors have been aggressive and the supporters many. Iconic sports personalities such as LeBron James and Serena Williams, both Nike ambassadors, said they were proud to be a part of the campaign video. Actor-artist Jim Carrey shared an artwork of Kaepernick, alongside Smith Carlos and Owens, to remind people of the history. 

The opposing memes have been in poor taste, like Nike is suffering from “Colin cancer”. But according to marketers, Nike is only gaining millions by being on the right side of history.

To battle the troll army, the warriors on the internet have turned to the words of Martin Luther King Jr: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It’s time for the world to step up, maybe in their Nikes.


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