No one had noticed Colin Kaepernick sitting on a bench as the American national anthem rang out during a pre-season match on August 16, 2016. No questions were asked, no objections raised.
There was no indication that the quarterback would become America’s most polarizing sports star. Perhaps it was because the then-injured Kaepernick was not wearing his San Francisco 49ers uniform on that summer night in Houston.
Six days later, at a home game with the Denver Broncos, Kaepernick was still injured, still protesting, yet fans, journalists, the 49ers, the NFL and its owners were still unaware a storm was brewing.
But on August 26, after a game against the Green Bay Packers, a reporter looked closer at a picture of the 49ers and noticed Kaepernick sitting alone near the coolers as everyone else around him stood while the anthem played.
Questions were asked. Word spread. Kaepernick became the most talked about athlete in America. A villain to some, a hero to others.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick, then 28, told NFL.com’s Steve Wyche, the man who broke the story.
“To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.
“There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Rising against injustice
This was a star quarterback in America’s most popular sports league. A black man with a black biological father and a white biological mother, adopted by white parents who raised him in the predominantly white northern Californian town of Turlock, drawing attention to police brutality.
It was not, he would reiterate, a protest against the military or the flag, though that message would become lost over the next two years, drowned out by the ire and the applause.
A tiny ripple quickly built into a wave which aimed to sweep down the walls of oppression. From San Francisco to Seattle, from the NFL to the National Women’s Soccer League, from elite sports stars to college kids, there were many who wanted to strike out with Kaepernick against injustice.
For the 49ers’ fourth preseason match Kaepernick took to one knee during the anthem; his teammate Eric Reid joined him.
On the same night Seattle Seahawks’ Jeremy Lane sat for the anthem. Days later Megan Rapinoe was the first white athlete to take the knee, doing so before a professional soccer match, and on September 9 Denver Broncos’ Brandon Marshall became the first NFL player to do it in a regular-season game.