My son Malcolm and I are big fans of yours. I remember the day when Malcolm, who was around 11 at the time, said that he wanted to write a poem about you for my book, We Matter: Athletes And Activism. I told him OK, but he was going to have to take the time and do the proper research. If he put in the work, I’d let him perform it at events on my book tour.
And so Malcolm, inspired by your decision to kneel during the national anthem to draw attention to the extrajudicial killings of unarmed black men in America, did just that and wrote a poem entitled Kaepernick, which he’s since recited to crowds at book fairs, poetry venues and colleges across the country – including at my alma mater Syracuse University last year – often proudly wearing his red and white jersey with your name across the back.
But last week Malcolm came to me confused. He’d listened as I devoted nearly an hour of my weekly radio show to discussing Jay-Z’s announcement of a business partnership with the NFL to offer advice and strategy for major events like the Super Bowl and to “nurture and strengthen community through football and music”, a marriage that’s felt like at best a mixed message and at worst a betrayal.
Malcolm asked me in a serious tone: Should we still be boycotting the NFL?
See, after you were whiteballed from professional football back in 2016, Malcolm made the decision to not watch an NFL game until you were picked up by a team. He cringed every time a quarterback of far less ability was signed while you remained out of football. I remember him becoming ecstatic over the rumor that you may be signing with the Seattle Seahawks and joining Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett and Russell Wilson. I remember him saying how perfectly you would fit in with how woke the team was, a nod to Seattle’s culture of activism and free thought. And I remember how frustrated he was when the invite was reportedly withdrawn because you wouldn’t promise to stand for the anthem. That made him respect you more, and write off the Seahawks organization for good. He’s rolled with you 100%.
I remember hearing him adamantly defend you to adults who would recite the “football reasons” for your exclusion that you’ve probably heard a thousand times: that if you were an elite-level quarterback … that if you were a better fit for a pro-style offense … that if your completion percentage relative to other NFL starters were just a little bit higher …
When it came to you, Malcolm always had the answers. But since last week, he’s only had questions.
Why haven’t we heard anything directly from Kaepernick?
Why are we only hearing from people close to him, like his girlfriend Nessa or brother-in-arms Eric Reid, but never from him?
If he filed a grievance against the NFL’s owners for collusion and they settled out of court, why did he tweet that he was working out and wanted to get back in the league?
Why is Jay-Z partnering with the NFL after wearing Kaepernick’s jersey on stage and shaming other rappers for even considering performing at the Super Bowl?
Why was the only time we heard Kaepernick say anything outside of his Nike commercial was when he first explained the reasons for his protest more than three years ago?
Why doesn’t he say anything?
I wish I knew what to tell him.
When I spoke on a panel at last year’s AEJMC Conference in Washington, I defended your right to remain silent to a room full of reporters who were criticizing you for not speaking up. I didn’t back down from a pointed exchange with Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post: “What else did you want him to say? He specifically told you the reasons why he was taking a knee: to protest political corruption, systemic racism and police brutality, and y’all allowed the narrative to be switched to being disrespectful to the country and the military.”
I accused those reporters of lazy journalism for letting your message be hijacked in the absence of your voice. Let’s just say I didn’t receive a standing ovation for my position.
But as I’ve contemplated Malcolm’s questions over the last week, I have to admit my son has a point. Why haven’t we heard directly from you? We know you signed a non-disclosure clause as part of your settlement with the NFL but – and correct me if I’m wrong – that’s only pertains to the specifics of the grievance. It doesn’t mean you can no longer speak publicly about anything.
You have an entire generation of people out here who want to back you.
You mobilized an army of supporters who caused Nike’s share price not to plummet, as countless Fox News commentators gleefully predicted amid their breathless calls for boycotts, but reach an all-time high shortly after you became the face of a campaign for the 30th anniversary of the sneaker company’s “Just Do It” motto in September.
You have people ready to cancel the greatest rapper ever – at least top three – because they question his motivations in partnering with the NFL, regardless of all the positive he’s quietly done in the community, like raising money for the families of Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin, donating funds for activists in Ferguson and Baltimore and lobbying New York governor Andrew Cuomo to appoint a special prosecutor in the Eric Garner murder case. Nobody is unclear about the NFL’s motivation in partnering with Jay-Z. Nobody is under the illusion that the league really cares about social justice. Everyone knows that as long as the owners can keep their players relatively silent – at least to the extent that won’t anger the aging, right-wing, Trump-supporting conservatives that comprise at least half their fan base – and keep their young urban demographic watching, the league could care less about black lives. And the only reason NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is even pretending to care is because of you.
By taking a knee, you shouted to the masses that America was at one time the land of the free and the home of the enslaved. A light bulb flashed on for many colorless people who realized that for those whose skin happens to be darker than theirs, the flag is not representative of liberty and justice for all, but rather a symbol of injustice for many and liberty only for a privileged majority. As a result, you created million of allies of all colors and races.
And nobody, not even the person who occupies the White House, could silence the reverberating power of your protest. Not even by deliberately contorting and twisting your message. Not even by publicly urging the NFL to fire you. That’s power! What you did thrust you into the upper echelon of athlete activists. Years down the road, they will mention your name alongside Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Craig Hodges and Dr Harry Edwards.
Did your taking a knee end the disproportionate killings of unarmed black men and women at the hands of the police across America? No.
Did it create a system in which police are held accountable and we no longer have – to borrow your words – “bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder”? No.
Do we now have a country that no longer oppresses black and brown people? No. In fact, we now have a man in the White House who derives his power from white nationalism and white supremacy.
But what you did was force people to discuss it and deny them the option of looking the other way.
That’s why so many took objection to Jay-Z saying “we’re past kneeling” while seated next to Goodell during last week’s joint announcement at Roc Nation headquarters – even as we patiently waited to see if Daniel Panteleo would face any consequences for choking Eric Garner to death in broad daylight five years ago. As we see gunmen responsible for mass shootings get taken alive while unarmed black men and women are gunned on the suspicion of possessing a weapon. As we watch one police officer after another – from Betty Shelby in Tulsa (Terence Crutcher), to Darren Wilson in Ferguson (Mike Brown), to Blane Salamoni in Baton Rouge (Alton Sterling), to Jeronimo Yanez in Minnesota (Philando Castile) – not being held accountable in any way, shape or form.
So many people like Malcolm are ready to support you, but you’ve kept silent. Imagine if Dr King inspired a movement for people to march, to have sit-ins and protests that put their careers and lives on the line for the cause, but never directly addressed them afterward. You’ve had waves of athletes from all backgrounds taking a knee in solidarity ever since you started. Not just professionals like World Cup hero Megan Rapinoe or Olympic fencer Race Imboden (who both specifically cited you as inspiration), but entire high school football and basketball teams. Young people not just blindly following the latest trend, but articulating their reasons for taking a knee and engaging in essential conversations about systemic injustice.
People all over America and around the world believe in your cause. They support you. And they need to hear directly from the man who inspired an entire generation of athletes to find their voice and use their platforms and follow in your footsteps.
We know we have a long way to go. We are definitely not “past kneeling”. You’ve inspired millions, but now the people are ready for your voice.