Like Muhammed Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith and others, Colin Kaepernick has used his platform as a world famous athlete to speak out against racism. Like these predecessors, he risked his career to stand up for his rights and his principles. In so doing, Kaepernick inspired a new wave of activism among professional athletes, leading to numerous incidents of players “taking a knee” during the national anthem as a protest against racist police brutality and injustice. Many youth also bravely took a knee.
The backlash has been severe. Starting at the top, in the most racist manner, President Donald Trump called for football players to be fired for exercising their First Amendment rights to protest racism and police brutality. The NFL owners took their lead from Trump and unilaterally changed rules to force players to stand for the anthem, although “the N.F.L. decided not to enforce the policy while league executives and the players’ union discussed whether or how to proceed.” (New York Times)
Kaepernick personally has faced harsh consequences for his principled stance, being blacklisted by team owners.
In a potentially positive development, on Aug. 30, arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled that Kaepernick’s case must go forward to a full hearing as to whether or not the owners colluded to prevent Kaepernick from being signed to a team. Kaepernick’s lawyers have uncovered documents showing evidence of collusion between the owners to keep Kaepernick off the field. The owners want to see his career ended permanently to punish him for daring to speak out against systemic racism and inspiring others to do the same.
Kaepernick has continued to use his platform to support progressive organizations. He has donated over $1 million to organizations working on behalf of undocumented youth, two families victimized by police brutality, two organizations fighting climate change and for the right of women to control their own bodies. He has also used his own organization to engage thousands of young people in workshops designed to teach them their legal rights in encounters with the police and court system.
Kaepernick signed an endorsement deal in 2011 with Nike, the multinational footwear and apparel corporation, and recently agreed to be in one of the company’s “Just do it” advertisements. The ad features Kaepernick’s image and the slogan “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
There has been a racist backlash against Nike’s choice of Kaepernick. Racists have been shown cutting the “swoosh” off their clothes and burning their sneakers. Trump praised this response in one of his Tweets, and gloated that Nike is “getting absolutely killed.” Trump condemned Nike not because he supports the workers who make those shoes. He is using every opportunity to promote his super-racist views.
Some people on the left have criticized Kaepernick for accepting the Nike deal, pointing to Nike’s history of labor violations in overseas factories. While Nike’s labor violations are certainly true, it is not unique to Nike. All sports-apparel giants, Adidas, Under Armour and others, engage in the same overseas operations to super-exploit workers. The anti-Nike backlash of the racists is not over concern for any worker or ethical practices. The overwhelming weight of anti-Nike sentiment today is based on racism against Kaepernick. It is part of the growing impunity that racist, pro-police forces feel they enjoy, especially with a white supremacist in the White House.
The Party for Socialism and Liberation has supported Kaepernick ever since he first took a knee, as well as other athletes who have spoken out for their principles and against police terror. Kaepernick has continued to use his high profile to make a public stance for social justice, even as he has faced continued blacklisting by football owners.
The struggle for justice can arise and develop in the most unexpected places, and few would have anticipated several years ago that the actions of professional football players would be playing such a prominent role today.
Resistance is rarely chemically pure. The Black Panther Party, for instance, often collected millions of dollars from members of the bourgeoisie outraged, not by capitalist exploitation, but at the use of the repressive arms of the state in ways that affronted their sense of “fairness and democracy.”
History is replete with examples of radicals and revolutionaries utilizing less than ideal circumstances to push forward a greater purpose. To critique Kaepernick for using this opportunity to elevate his message is truly to miss the forest for the trees.
The movement in the streets against police terror inspired Kaepernick’s initial protest and sustained his courage over the years. In turn, his courage and commitment, in the face of considerable pressure from the media, corporate owners and the ruling class, has inspired thousands more to take action and speak out. Kaepernick’s case, and that of all the other athletes following his example, is now a battleground in the overall struggle against white supremacy and for workers’ rights. That is how the lines are currently drawn and it is crucial that all working-class revolutionaries know where they stand.