On Friday night, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made the decision that he would not stand for the national anthem before his team’s preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. Afterward, he gave the following statement to NFL media:
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.
Kaepernick is, of course, not the first athlete to choose to protest during the anthem on anti-racist grounds. From the raised fists of John Carlos and Tommie Smith to NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 1996 to Manhattanville basketball player Toni Smith in 2003, such actions have always provoked not only controversy but ferocious backlash. In an era when more athletes are taking political stands, particularly around questions related to police violence, it was inevitable that activism and protest would play out in the NFL—football being the country’s most popular sport and the NFL being a multibillion-dollar business highly dependent on black labor. Kaepernick’s protest is provoking a predictably brutal reaction across social media as well as statements of support.
To help understand the waters Kaepernick will now be navigating, I did an exclusive interview with the executive director of the NFL Players Association, DeMaurice Smith. Below is a lightly edited transcript; the full audio interview follows.
Dave Zirin: What’s your response to not only what Colin Kaepernick did, but also to his statement afterwards?
DeMaurice Smith: First and foremost, our players are members of their community and obviously they have their own personal views, personal passions. I know Colin is a passionate individual. When I read [his statement], I thought, first and foremost, that protests and demonstrations have always been a part of what’s gone on throughout the history of sport.
Personally, I think the pregame celebration is important. I think honoring the flag is important. I know that one of the things that we always talk to our players about is, certainly, if you want to impact the political system, statements and things like this are important, but so is voting and so is getting people out to vote, regardless of your party affiliation.
Throughout our history, whether it’s through sit-ins or demonstrations, whether those occurred at lunch counters or coming out on the football field, at the end of the day, I think the way in which we’ve impacted the political system the most is making sure that not only individuals vote but making sure that everybody has that right to vote.