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.

But Colin Kaepernick is speaking very directly about police violence, not voter registration. That’s a different discussion.

Well, I’m not sure it is because it is you raising an issue that is important to you. And again, we’re reading and interpreting what he’s saying, but I think there is a very small step that always needs to be taken from raising the level of consciousness about a certain issue and that next small step that I think everyone has to take is: What am I going to do instead of just talking about it or raising awareness?

For me, everything has historical antecedents. Thousands of people before me marched in the streets and thousands of people engaged in something like the Children’s Crusade. The goal there was to raise awareness about all sorts of things. But the next step to that was, let’s make sure that we engage in some sort of political action to make change. And I’m not saying that those two things are binary, but I do think that this idea of making sure that we take that next step on how are we going to impact the system is something that is important if not as important as raising awareness.

What would the union do to support any players in the future who take their protest to the field of play?

I think, unfortunately, this is the part where you get the lawyer answer from me because it’s a complicated, fact-specific question of when things take place. We do have rules that govern what players can wear, what they can’t wear, what they can put on their shoes, what they can say, what they can’t say.

Demonstrations like this are not protected union activity, obviously. Some issues of freedom of expression are probably going to be OK. I can certainly think of some that would probably run afoul of NFL rules. I think it’s important not to get engaged in sort of a blanket statement about what’s permissible and what’s not. I do think that the real issue is what’s the conversation that we should be having with a group of players who have a tremendous platform and can have an ability to impact the political system. It’s a certain level of gross naïveté to believe that you are somehow insulated from what’s going on around us, politically. At its most crass level, we all know and the players know that the NFL spends a lot of money on public policy and lobbying and things like PACs, and that’s just the reality of where we live and the business that we’re in. The players made a decision to create a PAC as well.

But I do think that the real issue has to be the conversation that I would want to have with our players: that in America where people have fought so hard for the right to vote, how do we prevent the creep back on that right, whether it is related to gender, sex, race, previous conditions. And those are real, tough conversations and we don’t shy away from those in our locker room.

What do you have to say to the torrent of people who are saying that Colin Kaepernick should just shut up and play or keep his opinions to himself?

We have fought against that mantra for years, right? The fan who believes that we should shut up and play… that means that you don’t want to hear us, you just want people to entertain you. That because you’ve decided to buy a ticket, that somehow the people that you watch are relegated to [being] just a two-dimensional person without a soul, without feelings, without rights. Well that’s not the way that we approach it.

We love, certainly, the game of football, but when you turn the TV off and you stop seeing the players running around on the field, I can guarantee you that they continue to exist. They still come from the neighborhoods that they come from, they still experience the things that they’ve experienced. They still have to fight for the things that every American is entitled to, and that doesn’t mean that we’re only talking about the field. We’re a year away from a group of cheerleaders who successfully sued the league and resolved issues of sex and wage discrimination. So I’m not sure that any father, son, mother, you know, brother whose family member is on that playing field would want to hear that their family member should just shut up and play, because that reduces you to something less than human.

We don’t think that way about coal miners who go into the hole, we don’t think that way about our police officers, we don’t think that way about our firefighters. I mean, one of the most repulsive statements I’ve seen in the last couple years in this business was a statement by the, I guess she’s a part owner of the Colts, who said, and I’m paraphrasing, if players are concerned about things like concussions, well, they could always get another job. We don’t say that when it comes to fireman and police officers and coal miners when we’re talking about safety equipment.

I have little doubt that right now, as we’re talking, Colin Kaepernick probably feels a little bit isolated, a little bit besieged. That’s what usually happens when you say something and it blows up on social media the way this has. Do you have a message for Colin Kaepernick? Is your phone there for him? Is the union there for him if he’s looking for any help or support?

The union is a family and we represent our players unconditionally. I know that I talked to Don Davis, our head of player affairs, today. He’ll reach out to Colin today. He’s got union reps, he’s got my cell-phone number. We’ll reach out to him, as we always do with our players. We don’t judge, and I know the NFL likes to call themselves the family. The union is the only family our players have outside of their own families.

Regardless of what happens, it’s important to us to makes sure that they understand that we’re here for them. We’ll always be here for them and that’s the message that they hear every day in their locker rooms.

You’re a historically minded person. What does it say about this country that, at least by my observation, a lot of the media members, not to mention just regular sports fans who had a lot of beautiful things to say about Muhammad Ali when he passed away, could then turn around without thinking twice, absolutely trash Colin Kaepernick?

Well, again, you talk about historical context, you and I remember how people reacted to what Muhammad Ali was doing in the ’70s and the ’80s and what the reaction was then. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the outpouring of love that we saw when he died, right? I loved the tributes. I had an opportunity to go up to the Onondaga Nation this summer and spend time with Chief Oren Lyon who was one of the members who spoke at Ali’s funeral. The conversations with him reminded me about just how radical and the level of vitriol and hate that was expressed towards Ali in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s when he was taking those stands.

We tend to always tell our stories backwards. We wait until someone has passed and then it’s the glowing retrospective and then we like to frame it as, well, that’s where people are right now. That wasn’t where a great majority of people were back then. But you talk about the personal courage of somebody like him, defying the draft notice and making a decision that he was going to exercise his conscientious objection. You go back and you read how every other case of a similarly situated individuals resulted in the granting of that conscientious objection except for him!

I’ll read the words, some people try to say, yeah, well. that was Ali in the 60s, you hear the words of Jackie Robinson, right before he died in 1972, he said, “I can not stand and sing the anthem, I can not salute the flag. I know I am a black man in a white world in 1972 and 1947, at my birth in 1919, I know that I never had it made.”

So this is not new, what Colin Kaepernick is doing.

No, and I had the pleasure of spending some time with Walter Beech, who was one of those NFL players who was in that iconic photo with Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali, and he mentioned the exact same thing. So, to me, the beauty of where we are right now is that we are dealing in conflicted times and the only beauty that we can elicit from this is to embrace the things that have kept our country surviving. Things like freedom of speech, freedom of expression. Those are things that don’t necessarily come without cost, but things that we have tried to ensure and instill for generations to come.

When the conversation today is so pitched and so sharp and so polarizing where it’s simply designed to drown out meaningful conversation, we’re not necessarily in the world where, for the most part, it’s that issue of government oppression on freedom of speech. The concern that I’m speaking about, not to say that those things don’t exist, the concern that I’m talking about is the very freedom of expression is now being used to curtail expression and that’s a bad place.

It’s hard to have this discussion, also, without thinking of [NBA player] Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf who, in 1996, didn’t come out of the locker room for the national anthem and then he read prayers while it was being played. He certainly believes, his contemporaries certainly believe, that his actions during the anthem paved his way for getting bounced out of the league [NBA]. I feel like what I’m hearing you say, is that you’re not going to allow that to happen to Colin Kaepernick.

There is never going to be a day where this union is going to sit back idly and allow anybody to trample our players’ rights. We’ve taken certainly stands that I’m sure haven’t been popular across the board. The version of “shut up and play” that I hear is, Why do these guys need a union to begin with? Well, they have one and we are always going to take the position of fighting for the rights of our players, and if we believe that those rights have been violated, we’re going to stand up and support every player and that’s what we’re going to do. My hope is that it doesn’t get to that point in this case or any other case, we never pick a fight with anybody, but we certainly don’t shy away from one if the league brings one to our door.

You can listen to audio of the full interview below.