America has a history of taking black athletes who stand up for black rights and blackballing them. See 1968 Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos, whose black-gloved fists set off a butterfly effect of good ole down-home racism and death threats against both of their families.
See former NBA players Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul Rauf. Hodges couldn't even get a tryout after he used his position to ask then-President George H.W. Bush to help black communities. And Rauf's Mississippi home was burned to the ground after he protested the national anthem because of religious beliefs. Both Hodges and Rauf were in the prime of their careers when America turned its back on them. Hodges was forced to retire, and Rauf went from being one of the NBA's most electrifying guards to playing overseas at just 29.
So how did Colin Kaepernick, a highly paid, often injured, now backup quarterback end up securing his position with the San Francisco 49ers after he took a knee during the national anthem?
The Black Lives Matter movement, that's how.
For all the old fogies who argue that the disruptive nature of BLM protest is not the way to implement social change, I argue that Kaepernick is the direct effect of that change. Before Kaepernick's protest, he was on the bubble, at best, for securing a spot on the team. He was coming off a disappointing 2015 season in which he was benched when he was healthy and placed at season’s end on the injured-reserve list.
All signs pointed to Kaepernick being cut or traded in 2016. In fact, talks between the 49ers and other teams were rumored to be in the works during the off-season. Nothing came of it, and in 2016 Blaine Gabbert, who took over for Kaepernick after week 8 of the 2015 season and is 8-27 as an NFL quarterback, was reported to be in a competition with Kaepernick for the starting job. An unhealthy Kaepernick coming off of a bad year is still light years better than Gabbert.
Then, after two preseason games in which Gabbert took most of the snaps, Kaepernick sat during the national anthem.
When asked about his protest, Kaepernick noted that he couldn't ignore issues of over-policing in black communities.
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," he said. "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."
Shortly after his protest, like the great martial arts legend Sho'nuff before him, Kaepernick became electric. His Afro grew to epic heights. His words on police brutality were succinct and pointed. His jersey became the highest-selling jersey in the NFL. If there was any doubt where Kaepernick stood before his protest, there was no doubt after.
I don't believe that Kaepernick thought about his career when he took a stand. In fact, historically, he would have been sealing his fate by taking a stand. Hodges and Rauf where both in the prime of their careers when they protested and were subsequently blackballed by the NBA. Kaepernick simply did what he believed was right, and sometimes being right has unforeseen consequences.
By protesting, Kaepernick firmly placed himself in the Black Lives Matter camp, and in doing so, he brought with him the force of those who are willing to move on your stadium. This is not a group of namby-pamby protesters who don't believe in the power of their voice. Like the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycotters before them, they are willing to be as disruptive as the law will allow. They will march, shout, barricade. They will lock arms and join forces. They will make sure that their collective voice is heard.
Does Kaepernick care about his football life? Not as much as he cares about the Movement for Black Lives. His protest is pure. The aftermath is about money because everything—no matter what they tell you—is always, always about money.
Does the 49ers brass care about the Movement for Black Lives? Who knows. What they do care about, and what they didn't want to risk in cutting him, is the public relations nightmare that would have ensued. There would have been protesters at every game. New head coach Chip Kelly would have spent every press conference talking less and less about football and more about the movement.
And that is the way BLM would have wanted it. This is a victory for a movement that people have been critical of since its inception. This movement not only kept one black man off the unemployment line but, by doing so, also kept a great spokesperson in a position to use his influence to bring about change. It helps keep the story alive.
In truth, Kaepernick and the BLM protesters are the physical embodiment of the painting that's hung in the collective living room of the black imagination for centuries. You know—the one that shows the muscular black arm reaching down to pull up another outstretched muscular black arm. They needed each other. And while the work is far from over, never forget that when it comes to black protest in this country, America has a tendency to catch the vapors. That is, they hate you at the time of the movement, only to love you in the end. See Muhammad Ali. See Rosa Parks. And years from now, see Colin Kaepernick.
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is a senior editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.