There were the cheerleaders, the novelty checks and the photo-ops, the boos for the visiting team and the pyrotechnically-enhanced entrance of the home team, strutting and preening for the cameras to the sounds of Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead”: “Middle America packed in / Came to see me in my black skin.”
And then there was one.
For the final “Star-Spangled Banner” of the Miami Dolphins’ forgettable season, wide receiver Kenny Stills took a knee alone—up to that point he had been joined by teammates Michael Thomas and Julius Thomas, both since lost to the injured-reserve list. A giant flag covered the field, and the planes from nearby Homestead Air Reserve Base flew over Hard Rock Stadium. Everyone cheered as retired Air Force Sgt. Mark J. Lindquist sang “the land of the free,” and that was it—the gesture that turned the NFL into America’s biggest forum on social justice was over.
“It’s what I wholeheartedly believe in,” Stills says after the game, “so I do what I have to do.”
During the last week of the 2017 NFL regular season, seven players knelt down during the national anthem: Duane Brown, Marquise Goodwin, Eli Harold, Louis Murphy, Eric Reid, Stills and Olivier Vernon.
This action has become almost mundane: At least one player has knelt during the anthem every week since Colin Kaepernick started what are often mischaracterized as the “anthem protests.” The demonstrations reached peak participation in September, immediately after President Donald Trump suggested that players who took a knee should be fired. At that point, only Reid was actively protesting by kneeling during the anthem. But following Trump’s comments, more than 100 players knelt in Week 3, and dozens more offered gestures of solidarity—some, like the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones-led pre-anthem kneel, with debatable levels of sincerity.
But these seven players, and their injured colleagues who also knelt as long as they were on the field, have continued to advocate for the original intent of the movement Kaepernick began in August 2016: to raise awareness about police brutality and other systemic injustices, and the fact that those problems disproportionately affect black Americans.
To hear the last men kneeling tell it, their simple act of sustained protest—of continuing the public action that’s left their former colleague out of a job—has not been without consequence… or progress.
All five players who spoke with B/R Mag about the past, present and future of taking a knee described another season’s worth of taunting that lasts from the moment they step on the field until well after they read the comments on social media after the game. (Fans who spoke with B/R Mag about protests at four NFL games across the country this season characterized the anthem demonstrations as everything from “a disgrace” to “fine” to “amazing.”)
And multiple players felt it was “obvious” that the league, after buying some silence through a near-$100 million donation negotiated without them, would restructure the pregame routine over the coming offseason to prevent their protest. (Since none of their teams made the postseason, this past Sunday might actually have marked the end of an era.)
But these seven men, like so many other activists before and certainly after them, are not settling for the forcible conclusion of a movement that, at least for two football seasons, made people who’d rather talk about literally anything else talk about racism. After it became clear that efforts to work with the NFL were more about getting players to stand up than acknowledging their fight for equality, they decided to look outside the league for leaders. Increasingly frustrated with ownership, the group is planning to meet with Kaepernick this month in New Orleans to plan the next steps for a movement that’s grown beyond what any of them ever expected.
As Stills puts it over the phone, just before his own historic season finished: “I don’t know if they thought that enough of us were gonna get involved, and that we were going to ruffle this many feathers. I’m just proud of the guys who were able to stick to it, and I’m really interested to see where things go.”
For these players, who have already risked their livelihoods for such a simple, powerful act, there is no sense in stopping—no matter what the NFL decides to do.
The first person to join Kaepernick’s protest during the 2016 preseason was Reid, the 49ers’ star safety. He is also the only NFL player to never stand back up. It was during Reid’s early conversations with Kaepernick that the teammates came to the idea of kneeling during the anthem—a way to draw attention to their cause without the perceived disrespect of remaining seated on the bench. After Kaepernick opted out of his contract, Reid, too, was left alone on one knee to begin this season.
“I really didn’t have a plan,” Reid tells B/R Mag. “The goal was just to elevate the issue of police brutality and systemic oppression in this country and to continue to put public pressure on our government to change the system.”
Growing up 15 minutes from the LSU campus where he would develop into a first-round pick, Reid was a diligent student and intuitive leader on and off the field—Jim Harbaugh even tried to recruit him to Stanford. He was named a permanent team captain at LSU and elected team union rep in his second year with the Niners.
Activist is a relatively new job description for the 26-year-old, but Reid remains determined to use his stature as a reliable playmaker on the field to force change off it—even as he heads into free agency knowing Kaepernick remains unemployed. Reid is married with two daughters.
“When I hear heckling, I think we're accomplishing our goal—people noticing the protest forces them to talk about it,” he says—of home games. “You gotta make people uncomfortable. You force them to talk about the issue. Myself—and I know some other players—will continue to protest so we can do that. I'm in it for the long haul.”
Walk around any NFL stadium and it’s clear that everyone has an opinion about the protests. Some fans just feel more free to share theirs.
“It’s a disgrace for anyone to take a knee during the national anthem in this country,” says Keith, a 55-year-old Dolphins fan tailgating at MetLife Stadium two days after Trump’s now notorious “son of a bitch” comments during a rally for Senate candidate Luther Strange.
It’s a perfect fall day, and Keith is comfortably ensconced in a camp chair, drinking beer with his friends—two other middle-aged white men. He speaks with the certainty of someone who knows he won’t be challenged. He does not name any of the Dolphins who have knelt; indeed, he does not seem aware that they have.
“These owners should cut their players,” Keith says. “If they don’t want to play for football, don’t play. When you’re representing my team and my uniform, you’re standing for the national anthem or pay the consequences. I don’t think it has anything to do with racism. It has to do with national pride. It has nothing to do with race.”
“Carolina was awful,” Stills says, recalling a particularly persistent heckler in Charlotte, North Carolina, last November. “This guy was pretty liquored up in the front row right behind the bench. Sometimes it’s pretty sad, honestly—the fact that people really don’t understand and they’re not trying to understand. It kind of breaks your heart.”
The 25-year-old Dolphins receiver never used to consider himself political. His parents (his father is former Packers safety Ken Stills) didn’t talk much about current events, and like most NFL-bound athletes, his focus was football. Nonetheless, he developed a reputation for being a free spirit while playing for Oklahoma, with a Twitter following so active it was viewed as a liability on his scouting report.
Stills did not vote until 2016, but he had noticed a disturbing trend in the hashtags on his Twitter timeline: #FreddieGray, #SandraBland, #AkaiGurley, #AltonSterling, #PhilandoCastile. He wanted to take action offline, saw Kaepernick begin protesting and decided to kneel at the Dolphins’ season opener alongside three of his teammates—an act that he credits with changing his life.
“That lit a fire under my ass to get involved in my community and really started my activism,” Stills says from his home in Florida. “Ever since then, it's been something that I feel so strongly about—I can't help myself.”
Stills plans to spend the offseason volunteering with grassroots organizations around the country in a classic Volkswagen bus—but it’s still about reinforcing, rather than replacing, the statement he’s making on the field. “For me to stop protesting,” Stills tells B/R Mag ahead of Week 17, “I just don't really see that as an option.”
“People always want to make it about Kap. It’s not about Colin. It’s what you're doing to him.”
—KENNY STILLS, Dolphins wide receiver
Following Trump’s comments, Stills and his teammates tried to work with the Dolphins to find a means of activism that might be perceived as less confrontational: For four games, the protesting players remained in the tunnel during the anthem. Stills regrets it, calling the compromise “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made when it comes to the work we’ve been trying to do.”
From now on, Stills insists, he and his fellow protesting players are “going to continue to bring awareness to these issues on the biggest platform that we have.” That platform is the sideline, where players can provoke the conversations—and the controversy—they view as necessary to stop police brutality and end systemic injustice…even if that means cutting into team profits.
“That’s what people really don’t understand about us: We know that this protest is affecting their pockets, and that they’re going to do whatever they can do to try and make it end,” he says of NFL ownership. “I’m not purposefully trying to ensure that you don’t make money, but when are you going to try to address some of the problems in this country even though they don’t affect you? At what point?”
Stills continues: “People always want to make it about Kap. It’s not about Colin. It’s what you're doing to him.”
That part of the solution, for Stills, has remained the same since the beginning of the season. “It’s no secret that Kaepernick is better than a lot of guys in the NFL, and it’s a shame that the league and its owners are choosing to look foolish. They could have easily done the right thing and profited from it.”
We were promised boycotts. By Americans who were so offended by in-game protests that they no longer wanted to watch football. By those who were so offended by the league’s treatment of Kaepernick that they no longer wanted to support it.
“I’m a veteran, and I take offense to it,” says Keith, a 53-year-old Bears fan who had come to Soldier Field from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in early December. “This is the first NFL game I’ve been to in about 10 years, and if I see somebody taking a knee, I’m not coming back.”
The players have noticed the lull in attendance, whatever its cause. “Either Trump has been really successful by telling people not to go to the games—or fans in general are just turned off by what’s happening and the way the league has reacted,” says Stills. “There’s just definitely something different in all the stadiums—I think people are kind of fed up with everything that’s going on.”
Back outside Soldier Field in Week 13, Willie and Rick are discussing how to reconcile their fervent love for the Bears with their support for Kaepernick. “I won’t go into the stadium until after they do the national anthem,” says Rick, a 17-year season ticket holder. “I would take a knee, but I just don’t enter the game because I don’t want to deal with the negativity.”
“I'm not gonna stand, and if somebody has something to say, I’m gonna respond to them,” Willie concludes. He hasn’t watched a football game yet this season. “Everyone wants to holler about veterans and patriotism—get back to what it’s about: It’s about police brutality and the injustice going on.”
Michael Thomas doesn’t usually cry after games. In fact, remembering how he teared up talking about his daughter in a postgame interview that went viral in September, the Dolphins safety can’t help but laugh.
“It was the craziest thing—emotions were already running high because of the Trump comments, and we’d lost, so I was pissed,” Thomas says now. “But once I got to talking about my daughter, I couldn't even control it. After that, people who didn’t necessarily agree with the protest hit me up because they saw a father trying to be protective of his daughter and her future. People changed their tone, because it became real to them.”
Since Thomas began protesting—like Stills, he first took a knee during the anthem in Week 1 of 2016 and continued through Week 16 of this season, when he went on IR—he’s realized that he’ll have no choice but to have conversations about social justice and inequality with his daughter, who is now just three. Conversations that will, given his status as an outspoken public figure, sound different than the ones his parents had with him when he was growing up in Houston.
“Just because my daughter is growing up differently than we grew up doesn’t mean she’s immune to racism,” he says. “We’ve already had to deal with that with other parents, starting when she was one or two. It’s crazy, but that’s just still how things are.”
“There will have to be another wave of players to carry the torch, because they’re going to try to get rid of us.”
—MICHAEL THOMAS, Dolphins safety
Thomas has been a reliable veteran, but the 27-year-old feels his future with the Dolphins is in jeopardy after his sustained protest. “What we’re trying to get done is not going to happen overnight, and it’s definitely not going to change with us—there will have to be another wave of players to carry the torch, because they’re going to try to get rid of us,” he tells B/R Mag, less than one week before his contract with the Dolphins ends. “My wife knows even if they do give me the Kaepernick treatment and keep me out of the league this next year, I’ll be fine. I’ll be able to find a job, I’ll be able to support my family.”
When it comes time to have that conversation about his activism with his daughter, Thomas knows what he’ll say. “I’ll be real with her—just like, ‘Your father was fighting for change. He wanted a better America and a better society for you and all the kids that were coming up after you,’” he says. “Knowing my daughter, just who she is now and the way she’s been brought up, I know she’ll be proud of me.”
As hundreds of football players began protesting during the national anthem in September, the backlash became almost impossible to ignore—at least for NFL owners.
“Last year, we had the support of our owner,” says Thomas. “Then, boom: the Trump comments happened. You got one week where, excuse me for saying it, but all the team owners are putting on a show and talking about how much they support the players—taking a knee or locking arms or whatever—then the very next week they're saying, ‘Y’all gotta stop.’ The same person who was supporting us last year is now saying, ‘We can’t let Trump win, because it’s affecting the bottom line.’”
(Dolphins owner Stephen Ross declined to comment through a team spokesperson.)
For a few weeks after Trump’s comments, it seemed like the players had some leverage. A group of about 40 players led by Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin dedicated to promoting grassroots organizing and criminal justice reform had announced an initiative called the Players Coalition. The owners and the league were coming to them to ask, in Thomas’s words, “What’s it gonna take for y’all to stand up?”
At least according to Stills and Thomas—both initially part of the coalition—their primary request was ignored.
“The one thing that I always thought would really help the movement was if the owners publicly said that they’re for equality and police accountability—that they are against racism,” Stills tells B/R Mag. “I’m curious how many people at the ownership level are having those conversations—with each other, with their friends. When the people at the top decide to do that, then we’re going to be able to create the change we're actually looking for.”
“Forget monetary contributions,” Thomas adds. “We want a statement from y’all that is real, that y’all support the players and the causes they’re fighting for: accountability for police brutality and social injustices. That would be just as impactful as us protesting, but they refuse to do it.”
When you ask Eli Harold if he had ever imagined becoming an activist, the 49ers linebacker’s answer is simple: “No way!”
“No one thinks about this kind of stuff growing up,” he says, relishing a win over the Jaguars at his locker. “We only care about the glamorous things in life, not necessarily putting yourself in a very compromised position. I could never have seen myself doing this, but I don’t regret it, not one bit. I love it.”
Harold’s parents, though, must have had an inkling that he’d find his political voice: The Virginia Beach native’s full name is Medgar Elisha Harold, after civil-rights icon Medgar Evers. At 22, after two weeks raising his fist in solidarity with Kaepernick and Reid, he began kneeling alongside them.
“I just wanted, first and foremost, [to] be a voice for the voiceless—the people who no one listens to,” Harold says now. “I wanted to help raise awareness about police brutality with Colin and Eric. I knew I’d get a lot of backlash for it, but I didn’t care.”
“I just wanted [to] be a voice for the voiceless. I knew I’d get a lot of backlash for it, but I didn’t care.”
—ELI HAROLD, 49ers linebacker
This summer, Harold and fellow Virginia native Kam Chancellor will once again host VA’s UpNext Camp, where they’ve invited police out to talk to kids for the past two years. But right now, he’s looking for the source of blood that's stained the shirt he just put on after a victory over the Jaguars. Turns out it was a gruesome-looking gash on his leg that had somehow gone unnoticed.
Of his kneeling, at 28 weeks and counting, Harold says: “It’s made me believe more that everyone in the world should have an equal opportunity to openly protest, say whatever they want to say when they say it.”
There is snow on the ground outside MetLife Stadium. But Brian, 38, has layered himself in such a way that his T-shirt—I STAND FOR THE NATIONAL ANTHEM, it reads—remains visible.
“I’m a veteran and I believe in standing for the flag, so I thought this would be a good thing to sport,” he says. Brian doesn’t plan on boycotting the NFL—“I gotta watch football”—but this shirt, in Giants colors and fonts, is Brian’s way of preventing a tacit endorsement of the protest.
Inside the stadium, before the Giants take on the Cowboys in early December, there are various pregame entertainments: t-shirt cannons, a drum line, and what sounds like a machine gun on the loud speakers dissolving into Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” (“I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA”) as the players jog to the sideline. The string trio Time for Three performs “The Star Spangled Banner.” Barely visible beyond the giant flag is one man, kneeling silently, marked only by the photographers clustered to capture his dissent.
Olivier Vernon is the lone NFL player to spend the season protesting during the national anthem without any teammates alongside him. The Giants defensive end began kneeling with teammates Landon Collins and Damon Harrison following Trump’s comments in September, but only he continued to do so—despite being tweeted at by the president for kneeling on Thanksgiving Day. Giants owner John Mara has spoken publicly about how he’s tried to persuade Vernon to stand.
As the 27-year-old son of a Miami police officer spent his first season outside of South Florida, he’s mostly chosen to remain quiet about his protest. (Vernon did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) Even on social media, he sticks to fundraising for charity and posting pictures of his dog.
“People talk about not respecting police, you don’t respect the military,” Vernon told Newsday’s Bob Glauber in November. “My father agrees with me. I have friends that are in the military that agree with me. The people that get the biggest voice are the people that disagree with [the protests]. The people that do agree with it have no voice at all, which I don’t understand.”
The line that got the most attention, of course, was a succinct summary of the situation Vernon gave to the New York Post’s Paul Schwartz: “If they don’t like it, don’t come to the game.’’
Shortly after Thanksgiving, the NFL season’s biggest controversy seemed to reach a tipping point: After negotiating with the Players Coalition that had gained so much leverage around Trump’s comments, the league had agreed to donate $89 million dollars over seven years to various league-endorsed social justice causes.
But the millions exposed a growing divide among the many players trying to work with the league for meaningful change: those who saw an end to the protest, and those who didn’t.
“When I started protesting, it was never to get money from the NFL,” says Reid. “I applaud the NFL for wanting to be involved in our communities, but honestly it’s not enough. It’s not a transaction for me—that doesn’t come at the end of my protest.”
“When I started protesting, it was never to get money from the NFL.”
—ERIC REID, 49ers safety
Then came word that many of the protesting players had not been part of the negotiations, that Kaepernick had been effectively kicked out of the coalition and that the agreement had been made with a tacit understanding that protests would stop. Since the donations were announced, Jenkins—who helped start the coalition and has worked independently for criminal justice reform—has stopped raising his fist during the anthem.
“It didn't make a difference to me how people were protesting, but the guys that were kneeling generally felt like they were sacrificing a little bit more than the guys that were putting a fist up,” Stills says now. “The guys that were sitting...I think that's even a little more bold in some ways.”
He adds, explaining his frustration with the coalition’s negotiations: “If the league's trying to get us to stop kneeling, why would they be working with the guy who’s putting his fist up?”
Boldin, who recently quit football to focus on social-justice reform, pushed back in a call with reporters in December: “For people to say that guys sold out because the NFL has given us a larger platform to amplify our voice is insane.”
Nonetheless, the last men kneeling feel they've lost whatever leverage they had with the NFL's donation. Now they say they're convinced that over the offseason, the NFL will make continuing their protest impossible. Owners have reportedly discussed options, including a rule requiring players to stand—or else moving them back to the locker room during “The Star-Spangled Banner” entirely.
“We missed a huge opportunity,” says Thomas. “All isn’t lost, but I’m not surprised. And to me, it’s obvious what’s going to happen.”
At 32, Seahawks tackle Duane Brown is staring down the twilight of his NFL career rather than trying to make the most of his prime. He has spent most of his 10-year career advocating for diabetes research—both his mother and grandmother have the disease—but in the summer of 2016 he decided to publish an op-ed in tandem with Reid for Sports Illustrated, explaining why the Black Lives Matter movement was important to him. “All of our lives should matter,” he wrote, “but right now that is not the case for the black ones, and we should all feel compelled to change that.”
Brown also spent the first nine-and-a-half years of his career working for Houston Texans owner Bob McNair.
When a report by ESPN The Magazine’s Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta Jr. from an NFL owners meeting quoted McNair as saying “we can’t have the inmates running the prison,” almost the entire Texans team—including Brown—took a knee during the anthem. (“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Brown said of the owner’s comments at the time.)
When he was traded to Seattle days later, Brown continued taking a knee during the anthem, as much of the Seahawks defense—led by Michael Bennett—sat on the bench, as they had been almost all season.
Koran has had season tickets to the Jets since they moved into MetLife Stadium eight seasons ago. On this September Sunday, he has just watched Stills, Thomas, Julius Thomas, Laremy Tunsil and Maurice Smith kneel during the anthem in response to Trump’s saying protesting players should be fired. The 37-year-old, at the game with his wife and kids, is wearing a T-shirt with one of the most popular names in NFL merch on it: ALI & BROWN & ROBINSON & SMITH & CARLOS & KAEPERNICK.
“It’s this battle, but it has to be in the faces of those that are going to games—seeing the Dolphins players take a knee was amazing,” he says. “Any black and brown person can tell you when it comes to the police, it’s 50/50. I’ve been stopped three times in the past two years: twice in a car and once on a bike. I’ve been let off with nothing, but that fear that I had, when those lights come on...it’s different. For Kap to stand up for us like that is a beautiful thing.”
The players who are kneeling down, meanwhile, are forced to reckon with the obvious as they try to move forward: Kap is still unemployed.
“Some of the guys were willing to move on with this agreement with the league without Colin's situation being addressed,” says Stills. “The reason why I ended up breaking away from it was because I couldn’t understand how we could accept money from the NFL when they weren’t allowing Colin to play.”
The methods might need to evolve, but the movement remains: The players who refused to stand up—and likely a few others such as the Chargers’ Russell Okung, who has also separated himself from the Players Coalition—plan to discuss next steps now that their offseason has arrived. The last men kneeling are busy coordinating schedules to meet together this month in New Orleans, where Kaepernick will hold his latest Know Your Rights camp, a free social-justice event for young people.
“That will probably be the first time we meet up, which is huge,” Michael Thomas tells B/R Mag. “Right now, we’re doing it through group texts and stuff, but there’s nothing like everybody sitting down face to face—we haven’t been around each other like that outside of football.”
The kneelers are all planning to continue their individual charitable efforts, but they’re looking for matching donations from businesses, for more on-the-ground organizations, for advice from activists who have been down this road before.
“When people say the protest has lost its meaning because of Trump or because we couldn’t all work together with the league, I don’t buy it,” Thomas continues. “We just gotta find another way.”
“I tried to avoid kneeling, just because a lot of people who didn’t understand felt like it was disrespecting the country,” says 49ers wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, who began protesting alongside his teammates after Trump’s comments in September. “But that wasn’t the case, and it’s still not the case.”
Goodwin, a Texas native, went to UT as a “football player on a track scholarship” (as he explained to the Austin American-Statesman at the time) and came out a third-round draft pick. His awakening as an activist, though, came in the midst of a season that can only be described as tragic: His wife, Morgan, had pregnancy complications that led to a premature birth and the death of their infant son just hours before he was due on the field, and his biological father died weeks later. (Goodwin alludes to an event over the offseason, which he is not publicly disclosing, that also changed his perspective on the protests.)
“What we went though gave me a different view on how I should feel,” he tells B/R Mag. “Eventually, I always knew I would take a knee, but when my wife was pregnant I had to start making decisions not only for me, but for her and our future kid. Obviously, we lost our kid, but moving forward I have to fight for my legacy and my future family. I gotta do what’s right.”
On Christmas Eve at the 49ers game, one potential franchise quarterback’s name was on everyone’s lips: Jimmy Garoppolo, who would throw for two touchdowns against the best defense in the league, the Jacksonville Jaguars. Santa hat-clad fans lined up to buy Garoppolo jerseys, and there was a palpable sense of relief at not having to talk about the franchise quarterback whom San Francisco not-so-quietly let walk away.
Even in the Bay, wearing a Kaepernick jersey isn’t a sure thing. James, a 16-year-old Niners fan in line for french fries with his parents, was one of a small number of fans wearing No. 7 to Levi’s Stadium. “People just don’t like it—they’ll give negative looks,” he says of his jersey, which he bought after Kaepernick started taking a knee. “I think that he was showing respect to the flag. They’re protesting for something that’s right.”
A week earlier, Niners wide receiver Louis Murphy had become the latest player to take a knee for the first time—and refuse to stand back up. When asked in the locker room at Levi’s Stadium why he’d decided to start protesting the national anthem so late in the season, the 30-year-old’s response was justifiable incredulity, his answer having become, over the course of two seasons before it, so increasingly obvious: “You really don’t know? Really?!”
Natalie Weiner is a staff writer for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. Follow her on Twitter: @natalieweiner