Have We Lost Sight of What Colin Kaepernick Was Really Protesting For?

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 26, 2017

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 24:  Laremy Tunsil #67, Maurice Smith #27 and Julius Thomas #89 kneel with Jarvis Landry #14 of the Miami Dolphins during the National Anthem prior to an NFL game against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on September 24, 2017 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Sunday's sideline protests across the NFL were unprecedented and powerful, inspirational to many and unconscionable to others. But love them or loathe them, you have to agree that the demonstrations undeniably raised awareness about...about... 

Wait. What were the players kneeling about?

Donald Trump, right? It was an anti-Trump demonstration, or at least an anti-getting-cussed-out-by-a-sitting-president-for-political-activity demonstration.

Sort of.

No, wait. It was about free speech. Or maybe solidarity? Team owners locking arms with their players must mean solidarity.

Or maybe it was about being ungrateful, disrespecting our troops and hating America. No, that's just what my Twitter mentions think it's about.

C'mon. Think, think, think...(lightbulb appears above head)

Police brutality. And racial inequality. That's what demonstrations during the national anthem are about!

At least, that's what they were supposed to be about initially.

That's what Colin Kaepernick knelt for last year, long before Trump was in office. Kaepernick was never specifically protesting about Trump. Heck, Kaepernick had harsh words for Hillary Clinton, too. His protest was about African-Americans getting shot by police officers, profiled by law enforcement and labeled as dangerous thugs by society. That's a crisis that predates the Trump presidency by decades.

Kaepernick's message was initially distorted, garbled and repurposed by those who specialize in distorting, garbling and repurposing any messages they don't want to hear. The get the hell out of my country crowd has always been too dedicated to being part of the problem, dating back to the civil rights movement, to listen to the likes of Kaepernick. But plenty of other athletes and activists understood Kaepernick's cause and rallied to it.

Still, with Kaepernick out of the NFL for (nod, wink) "football reasons," national anthem protests and the social justice wing of the NFL were in danger of becoming a back-burner story. A football player raising his fist before a game? Insane Clown Posse fans are holding a political rally on the National Mall, guys. You gotta do better than that.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Then Trump insulted protesters and challenged the NFL this weekend, prompting the most dramatic display of political protest in an American sports setting in decades.

But it wasn't about police brutality or racial equality. Instead of Athletes vs. Injustice, it was Trump vs. the NFL: a clash of two cultural titans known for reflexively squashing anything that stands in their way.

Owners, always careful to play both sides toward what remains of the middle, issued vague condemnations of "divisive" remarks and campfire-song affirmations about freedom and equality. Players, swept up in the emotions of the weekend, struggled to stay on message. Some cited social concerns and causes, but the juiciest quotes (like Josh Norman's "not my president" remark) were the ones that got the most attention.

Sunday's protests were a case study in the Law of Unexpected Consequences. Or were they? The president fanned a fire that he wanted extinguished. Or perhaps he got just what he wanted: more headlines with his name in them, fuel for his ego or cover for policy maneuvering.

And there may have been another unintended consequence of such a "successful" demonstration by the players: a diluted message, a triumph of optics over issues and a reframed conversation that some talking heads and Twitter eggs have reduced to the rich and powerful battling over their interests and feelings more than anything happening in our streets and neighborhoods.

A protest which becomes all about the protest itself is what Micah White calls a "constructive failure." White, one of the founders of the Occupy Wall Street movement and author of The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution, explained to me last year that Occupy got lots of attention and energized/organized many groups of activists, but it ultimately failed because there was no next step beyond pitching a tent outside a bank headquarters and yelling.

That's the risk here. The NFL declares mission accomplished. The president flits off to his next Twitter beef, or perhaps tries his hand at some traditional legislating for a change. We go back to writing "Colin Kaepernick is better than Ryan Mallett" literature. Racial profiling? Prison reform? Systemic inequalities? They don't move the needle anymore when there are personal insults to express and debates to be had over whether players who protest should be suspended.

Fortunately, many athletes are already taking the next step.

LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 24: Oakland Raiders players sit during the national anthem before they take on the Washington Redskins at FedExField on September 24, 2017 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

RISE to Vote is the latest project by the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), the leading voice in using sports as an agent of social improvement and political change. RISE to Vote is exactly what it sounds like: a voter registration program for both athletes and the communities they influence.

RISE to Vote is non-partisan, unless you think that encouraging a population full of people of color to vote is somehow partisan. Which, if you do, circles back neatly to why we are all in this mess in the first place.

Jocelyn Benson, CEO of RISE, recognizes that the medium can kill the message when a protest becomes a bigger story than the issues which prompted it.

"As you see, things get injected into the political discourse in a very divisive, binary way. It is frustrating to see political figures try to boil this down to a framework that works best for their base, as opposed to what the issues really are: There's injustice in the world, and players are using their platform to draw attention to it," she said.

"This was never about anything having to do with the anthem or kneeling," Benson added. "It's always been about raising awareness around ways to advance equality and ensure that our country lives up to the ideals of the Constitution."

The protest was not initially about voting, either. Kaepernick famously announced that he would not vote for either candidate in the last presidential election. That's the element of Kaepernick's initial protest that is best drowned out by other voices.

"We're here to say that voting is one of the most tangible things you can do to change something that you want to see changed," Benson said. "That's an important message that did get lost among players who talked about not voting in the past that we want to rectify."

Demonstrations are great. But voting and encouraging others to voteparticularly at the local level, where elections can directly impact boots-on-the-ground policies for police, prisons, schools and communities—are more powerful.

"According to our data, once someone becomes a registered voter, often that's the first and most influential step that they can take toward being engaged in local issues," Benson said.

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Kaepernick's initial anthem protest was about more than police reform or racial inequality. It was about the power and rights of individual citizens, including free speech, the right to challenge authority and all of those other things that Sunday's protests came to represent.

But racial justice, the core issue, is one that's easy to lose because so many of us feel uneasy about saying or typing the words "racial justice."

The real reasons for protest are now bundled with other social problems and heaped atop our growing bonfire of polarizing topics and cultural controversies. But thanks to what happened on Sunday, at least they have not been swept under the rug.

"The issue that we care about and focus on became the biggest story in the country," Benson said. "So we'll take it and run with it."