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Reverberations as a Generation Takes a Knee
With a simple gesture, Colin Kaepernick started a movement.
I swear I can’t help it. During baseball season, almost every night at 7 p.m. (and 1 p.m. on Sundays and sometimes Wednesdays or Thursdays; earlier if they’re playing East), I follow the Seattle Mariners baseball team, a franchise that has not reached the playoffs in exactly 20 years, the longest drought of any team in professional sports. Still, I always think this might be the year they’ll finally make it.
It’s an odd thing for me, being a baseball fan. Almost nothing about the sport (or really professional sports as a whole) aligns with my politics, values, or ideals. The winner-takes-all economics. (This is especially egregious in baseball, where stars can make tens of millions of dollars per season, while other players in the lower levels labor near or below the poverty line.) The alignment with military and law enforcement. (Just yesterday, I watched a Marine decked out in full combat gear throw out the first pitch, joining the parade of national security professionals celebrated during games.) The toxic masculinity. (During a recent game, my wife told me the first thing she wonders when looking at these players is how they treat women. It’s true that seemingly every year at least a few are suspended for domestic or gender-based violence.) And, of course, the racism. (In baseball, specifically, the number of African American players has declined over the decades, and it isn’t lost on me that this new iteration of Mariners, with the most Black players in the league, is still disproportionately populated by All-American-looking White boys.)
And yet I can’t help it. In a recent poem for The Believer magazine, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning poet Ada Limón clarified something important for me about the enduring appeal of athletics, perhaps especially to someone like me, who hates myself a little every time I bring up the MLB app on my phone. “I’ve even high-fived and clinked/my almost-empty drink with a stranger/because it felt good to go through something/together,” Limón writes, “even though we haven’t been through/anything but the drama of a game, its players.” The poem’s closing lines depict her father and stepfather, two men entirely at odds except for their shared affinity for sports: “and from the backseat I swear they looked/like they were on the same team, united/against a common enemy, had been fighting,/all this time, on the same side.”
For those of us who live in a society where different factions can’t even agree on basic facts, let alone what to do about health care, labor conditions, racial disparities, or the environment, there is something comforting about the simple drama of The Game, the knowledge that the person sitting next to you is wondering the exact same thing you are, namely whether or not this will be the year that the Mariners make the playoffs.
Sports’ ubiquity within American culture and near-uniqueness as sites of social unification explain at least part of the excitement surrounding the events of 2016, when a certain quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice. In retrospect, Colin Kaepernick’s actions seem almost tame compared to what came next: the summer of 2020 and a bona fide “national uprising,” in the words of n+1 writer Tobi Haslett, after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others. Police precincts were burned, retail stores were looted, and protesters took over whole swaths of urban areas as politicians, corporate executives, and other public figures rushed to declaim, with varying degrees of ingenuousness, their support for Black Lives Matter. Back in 2016, though, many of those voices were silent, and the collective response to Kaepernick was fierce: first controversy, then condemnation, and finally exile from the National Football League, where he’d excelled. If Kaepernick has become less visible over the past few years, that’s very much by design. Despite a proven track record of success, he has not been offered a contract since he first decided to take a knee.
A new book by The Nation sports writer Dave Zirin seeks to redress this wrong, not by returning the spotlight to Kaepernick, but by showing the impact that his actions have had on an entire generation of American athletes. The Kaepernick Effect draws from interviews with amateur and professional athletes from every region of the country, nearly all of whom are Black, and their stories follow remarkably similar trajectories: consciousness about the state of American racism instigated, at least in part, by the killing of Black men by police; inspiration to act from Kaepernick; backlash from the public, including, in many cases, death threats; and a renewed determination to pursue racial and social justice. The many young men and women featured in Zirin’s book (football players from Ohio and Michigan, cheerleaders from Georgia and Iowa, basketball players from Vermont and California) are notable not only for their courage in the face of adversity, but also for their commitment to collective action as an answer to widespread injustice. It’s possible, reading their words, to imagine an entirely different world of sports, where individual athletic excellence comes not at the expense of social justice but instead serves as a catalyst for it.
If there are reasons to be pessimistic, however, they involve professional sports, where, with the notable exception of basketball, being “political” still often means kissing one’s career goodbye. Bruce Maxwell, the only Major League Baseball player to have taken a knee in 2017, suffered so much psychological stress during that time that he developed suicidal ideation, leading to an incident with a Postmates delivery driver and a gun that resulted in his arrest. He hasn’t played in the major leagues since. Michael Rose-Ivey, a former star linebacker for the University of Nebraska, was once the 15th ranked player at his position in the country. After he took the knee for his entire senior year, he went undrafted by the NFL and was released by the Chicago Bears shortly after a tryout. Gwen Berry, an Olympic gold medalist in the hammer throw, lost sponsorships after she raised her fist on the medal stand. And Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job.
In the end, what I found most hopeful was not the change that these activist-athletes were able to bring to their sports or fan bases; it was what their experiences of activism gave to them. The former linebacker Rose-Ivey became an activist and mentor to Black youth in Kansas City. Janelle Gary, a former softball player at Seattle’s Garfield High School, helped found New Generation, which organized rallies, raised money, and hosted events within her community. Alyssa Parker, a cheerleader in Iowa, founded a Black Student Union at her college. Mi’Chael Wright, a basketball player at the University of California, Santa Barbara, went on to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Minnesota.
Perhaps, then, to revise my thesis, what’s most interesting about sports is not their capacity to unify—their ability to temporarily paper over our political, ideological, and interpersonal divides. Instead, it’s the window that they provide into our social relations—our racism, sexism, and militarism, yes, but also our righteousness, advocacy, and desire to do what’s right. With a simple gesture, Kaepernick started a movement. Zirin’s book shows that movement has only just begun.