The Kaepernick effect and the new power of sports activism

Kaepernick sports activism (Photo from Flickr by Brook Ward)
(Photo from Flickr by Brook Ward)

I have a secret dream:

One day an overwhelming segment of the country’s population will spontaneously come together in solidarity and take decisive action to transform the systems that perpetuate injustice.

Usually it happens during some boring meeting I’m stuck in. I’ll retreat into this daydream, where I visualize all college students deciding we won’t pay our student loans anymore. Or maybe everyone decides to boycott all the corporations that support the prison-industrial complex. Or perhaps everyone votes for an independent third-party that fundamentally shakes up the political foundations of the country.

Regardless of the scenario, the ending is always the same: We heroically triumph over the status quo, we move in an innovative direction as a people, and completely rewrite world history.

I guess you could say this is a tall order. But more and more each day, I find we are one step closer to making this “impossible” quite possible.

Case in point — the Seattle Seahawks’ Jeremy Lane, San Francisco 49ers’ Eric Reid, and Seattle Reign’s Megan Rapinoe are the latest athletes to join Colin Kaepernick’s crusade in protesting the Star Spangled Banner in the name of fighting racial injustice.

More and more athletes are starting to take a stand against these social ills plaguing the country.

It was actually WNBA players that led the charge in this new wave of sports activism. Back in early July, teams like the Minnesota Lynx, the New York Liberty, and our very own Seattle Storm donned black warm-up jerseys to bring awareness to the extrajudicial killings of African Americans by police officers.

During the ESPY awards later that month, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Paul called on athletes to utilize their platforms and speak out against injustice. And let’s not forget the University of Missouri’s football team helping force the resignation of President Timonthy Wolfe for failing to respond to racism on campus last year.

I believe we are witnessing the political awakening of many collegiate and professional athletes across the nation.

It reminds me of the video of the guy dancing at Sasquatch in 2009. At first, he was the only person grooving to Santigold on the grassy hill. His shirt was off. He moved awkwardly to the beat. But there was a noticeable freedom in his movement that could only come from discarding your inhibitions (one could only speculate whether substances assisted in this process). A few people came by and danced with him. They came and went quickly. Unperturbed, the man continued to dance.

And then suddenly, as if a dam had broke, a whole wave of people came running over to join him in what became a full-on dance party.

With Kaepernick’s decision to continue to sit during the national anthem until he sees significant changes in America’s race relations, I believe more athletes, particularly NFL players, will join him in solidarity. This has the potential to spark a large cultural shift.

Kaepernick’s actions have drawn the metaphorical line in the sand for the NFL. This is the moment of truth for players to reveal their political leanings. Will they join in and protest the national anthem or will they remain silent and choose to go along with the status quo? Will they be more Jim Brown or Jerry Rice?

Of course, there are risks and rewards that come along with either side. Sales of Kaepernick jerseys have gone through the roof. But on the flip side, many GM’s have expressed contempt for him and said anonymously they would never sign him to their teams. These statements could have a chilling effect on other players who agree with Kaep’s stance but are fearful of reprisal. There’s a chance they could be blackballed by the league.

But despite these possible consequences for taking a stand, I’d be willing to wager we’ll see more football players join the protest as the regular season commences. It’s inevitable. As contentious as the current racial climate is in the country — and as the list of police killings of unarmed people of color grows longer — there will be plenty of fuel for this ever-growing political fire.

When unknown community activists protest institutionalized racism, the system can easily dismiss them… It’s much harder to invalidate professional athletes.

What’s most exciting about this recent development of athlete activism is how influential these people can be in bringing awareness to a mainstream society that has so long ignored these issues. This kind of influence is critical to bringing the undecided on board for our march towards justice.

Part of the way oppression is able to persist as a social system is by invalidating anyone that challenges it. When unknown community activists protest institutionalized racism, the system can easily dismiss them as no-name rabble rousers. But it’s much harder to invalidate professional athletes protesting injustices, given all of their accumulated social capital.

It’s unfortunate that we live in a world where the credibility of a movement — especially one that simply argues for the value of someone’s life — weighs so heavily on people of prominence offering their endorsement. This definitely is evidence of America’s worship of celebrities and athletes (I mean how else could you explain the rise of Donald Trump?)

But as sad as this reality is, it doesn’t make it any less true. When LeBron James speaks out against police brutality, more people will take heed.

With the current resurgence of socially conscious athletes, following in the footsteps of Jim Brown, Billie Jean King, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Muhammad Ali, my dream of a large scale mass movement that fundamentally transforms the country might not be so far-fetched after all.