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Colin Kaepernick Did the Right Thing in Protesting Anthem Despite the Cost

SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 18: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers stands on the field prior to the game against the Baltimore Ravens at Levi Stadium on October 18, 2015 in Santa Clara, California. The 49ers defeated the Ravens 25-20. (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Michael Zagaris/Getty Images
Mike FreemanNFL National Lead WriterAugust 27, 2016

This was Muhammad Ali in the 1970s, the man most of America recently celebrated as an angelic truth-teller, a necessary and historic part of the American story. He was speaking about professional athletes.

"They make a million dollars," he said. "They get 'em a Rolls-Royce. They get 'em a nice home. They get 'em a white wife. 'Well, I made it. America's great.' And the rest of [African-Americans] catching hell, and he won't say nothing. But when one man of popularity can let the world know the problem, he might lose a few dollars himself telling the truth. He might lose his life.

"But he's helping millions. But if I kept my mouth shut just because I can make millions, then this ain't doin' nothing. So I just love the freedom and the flesh and blood of my people more so than I do the money."

See, Ali's message wasn't always neat and tidy. His legacy was complicated and brilliant. But that is why he was so important. He said things people needed to hear, even if they disagreed. Even if they violently disagreed.

Flash forward to Friday night, in 2016, and the national anthem plays before the 49ers faced Green Bay at Levi's Stadium. Colin Kaepernick declined to stand. In doing so, he became one of the most important stories of the year in sports—and beyond.

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told Steve Wyche of NFL Media after the 49ers' loss to the Packers. "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."

There is no space between what Ali and Kaepernick stated. This is not to say that Kaepernick is Ali. No one is Ali. But the message, and the use of his stature as someone who will garner attention, is the same.

If you celebrated Ali but condemn Kaepernick, then you never fully understood Ali, because they are saying the exact...same...thing.

I don't agree with Kaepernick. I don't believe the anthem or flag represents bigotry or oppression. Most who honor it don't believe in bigotry or oppression. This is a nation that twice elected an African-American man to the presidency by comfortable margins. A mostly bigoted nation doesn't do that.

But this doesn't mean Kaepernick is wrong about some aspects of what's happening in America (though that is another topic). The main point is that we can't ask our athletes to be honest and then, when they are, turn on them.

Run. Jump. Score. But don't talk.

That's the message many Americans give to athletes.

Or, when you do speak, say things that are only mainstream, not threatening. Things we agree with. Otherwise, get out of our country. Go back to...wherever.

Stick to sports, they are told.

Kaepernick has every right to express his beliefs, and others have the right to disagree. This is democracy in action.

What Kaepernick did was an extension of what we've seen with athletes in the past few years. In sports, we've come a long way from the days when Michael Jordan refused to talk about social issues out of fear he would offend people and thus sell fewer shoes. Or Tiger Woods sticking to golf.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JULY 9:  Lindsay Whalen #13, Maya Moore #23, Rebekkah Brunson #32, and Seimone Augustus #33 of the Minnesota Lynx attend a press conference before the game against the Dallas Wings on July 9, 2016 at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minneso
David Sherman/Getty Images

We've seen the Liberty and Lynx in the WNBA honor slain African-American men as well as killed Dallas police officers. A group of NBA players, including LeBron James, spoke at the ESPYs about the need for change. Carmelo Anthony posted a lengthy note on Instagram urging fellow athletes to get more involved.

He also wrote in a column for the Guardian: "No athlete should think: 'If I speak up, I'm going to lose an endorsement or a sponsorship.' Because if that's the case, then you have to question the kind of people that you're doing business with and ask yourself where their heads and morals are."

Kaepernick is the latest extension of this athlete growth. And I say good for him.

Where Anthony is wrong is he's slightly naive about the repercussions of speaking out. It's not just about the morals of sponsors. While athletes have used social media to increase their power, so too have the opponents of free speech. The backlash against Kaepernick across social media was swift and powerful. He had plenty of supporters, but there was also extensive anger and ugliness aimed at him.

Kaepernick's speaking out will cost him dearly. He's smart; he knew this. And he still spoke out. I think this will end Kaepernick's career in the NFL. I'm not sure how much he was going to play in San Francisco anyway, and when he does leave the 49ers next year (definitely he'll be gone), no team will touch him.

When all of this first erupted, I got texts from players, coaches and front-office executives. Six players reached out (five black and one white), and all backed Kaepernick. The four assistant coaches and two front-office executives who were white said Kaepernick was wrong. The two black assistant coaches said they were fine with what Kaepernick did. This is hardly a scientific poll, but it is interesting.

It's another reason why though I disagree with what Kaepernick said, what he did was brave. Yes, I said brave. Again, he knew his words wouldn't just cause a nuclear explosion; he also likely knew many of the NFL's teams would likely hate what he did. Not all, but many.

Yes, good for Kaepernick. It's what Ali would have said.

Actually, it's what Ali already said.

    

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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