By Sean Newlin
For the 9th time since August 14th, Colin Kaepernick knelt in protest during an NFL pre-game national anthem. Unlike his first protest in early August, this time he was joined by teammates Eli Harold and Eric Reid, and unlike his first protest, this time it didn’t make any headlines.
Colin Kaepernick was featured on the cover of the October 3rd issue of Time Magazine as a result of the conversation he has sparked, centered on racial injustice in the United States and the persistent and systematic police violence directed at blacks. His protests are a self-described show of solidarity with those who are oppressed, and a demonstration of how the flag does not currently represent the symbol of freedom that it’s meant to. Athletes like Colin Kaepernick are in a rare position in the United States: as people of color, they have an opportunity in which they can influence the national conversation, and can use their status as a celebrity and a role model to give a voice to marginalized and underrepresented Americans.
Athletes like Colin Kaepernick play a key role in creating new policy windows by influencing what political scientists call the political stream, or the collective willingness for lawmakers to change policies. Through public protests, they have a unique ability to draw the attention of large, diverse segments of the population from varying backgrounds and political identities. By prompting discussion amongst their fan base in addition to the casual viewer, athletes are able to reach large segments of the population that would otherwise be inattentive on an issue; they are useful in recognizing a problem and influencing the political climate, priming the political environment for policy change.
There is still meaningful momentum behind Kaepernick’s national anthem protest. Since his first protest on August 14th, 2016, teammates and peers throughout the league have joined Kaepernick by protesting during the national anthem. In addition to “taking a knee”, athletes have also showed unity for the cause by locking arms during the national anthem. Other athletes have protested by raising a single closed fist during the national anthem, paying homage to the historic protest by 1968 track and field medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Both professional and amateur athletes alike have rallied around the national anthem as a way to maintain the conversation’s momentum, and have garnered significant media attention for doing so.
There is precedence for black athletes protesting racial injustice, black oppression and police violence in the United States. Tommie Smith characterized their raised-fist protest during the Olympic medal ceremony as a show of solidarity for those “lynched or killed… hung and tarred”. Their protest was also a representation of black poverty, black pride and the diminishing rights of blue-collar workers. In 2012, after the murder of Trayvon Martin, several members of the Miami Heat team posed for a photo in hooded sweatshirts, including Lebron James. Lebron also played games in shoes that said “RIP Trayvon Martin”. Black t-shirts were frequently worn during warm-ups by WNBA and NBA players that year, as a symbol of solidarity in regards to the Trayvon Martin killing.
Athlete protests are not without consequences or public backlash. When Denver Broncos’ linebacker Brandon Marshall took a knee during the first regular-season NFL game this year, he lost his endorsement deals from Colorado Credit Union and CenturyLink. Santa Clara police officers threatened to boycott working security at 49ers game as a result of Colin Kaepernick’s protests. The East Carolina University band knelt while playing at halftime to audible boos from the crowed. Tommie Smith described the difficult position of being a black athlete in the U.S.: “If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, they would say I am a negro.“
Athlete protests can be a powerful and effective force in sparking policy change in the U.S. One of the most successful examples of athlete protests driving change was in 2015, when members the University of Missouri – Columbia football team protested in support of removing the university’s chancellor and president for the way he handled on-campus incidents of racial slurs directed at black students. This followed the beginning of a hunger strike by a black student on campus, Jonathan Butler. The football players, with support of their coaches and staff, gave an ultimatum to the university president: unless he resigns, they won’t play.
What was a relatively local and quiet protest at a midwestern university quickly drew attention from state lawmakers and national media due to the involvement of the football team. Missouri’s attorney general, Chris Koster and senior U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill both got involved once the group of football players issued their ultimatum. Both the president and chancellor of the University of Missouri resigned just three days after the athletes joined the campus-wide protest.
Right now, Colin Kaepernick has opened a new policy window with the momentum behind his national anthem protest, and has the opportunity to effect meaningful change in the lives of blacks in America, beyond the awareness and donation support he has already generated. But as is starting to be seen with the already fading media interest in his demonstrations, the window is not open very long. Politicians and lobbying groups need to be aware of the potential policy window an athlete can open by public protests, and they need to be prepared to take advantage of the short window to move on their proposals.
Sean Newlin is an MPP candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy. Before coming to GSPP, Sean was a project scientist working on environmental issues for SCS Engineers .