When Colin Kaepernick knelt down during the national anthem to take a stand against police brutality and racial injustice in 2016, he was practically alone.
Politicians, team owners and fellow players criticized him, fans burned his shirt and he was booed even at home. Four years later, his protest is widely seen as prescient. Global opinion has changed so much that now more people are defaming those who attack Kaepernick or misrepresent his position.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees issued a public apology on Thursday after being criticized by teammates, other athletes and fans for saying "he will never agree with anyone who disrespects the United States flag" .
That sentiment was expressed out loud by critics of Kaepernick and President Donald Trump reiterated it on Friday, saying on Twitter: “I am a huge fan of Drew Brees. I think he's really one of the greatest defenders, but he shouldn't have taken his original stance back by honoring our magnificent American flag. OLD GLORY should be revered, appreciated and taken to the top … We should be standing and standing, ideally with a greeting or with our hands on our hearts. There are other things you can protest about, but not our Great American Flag – NO HELP! "
Still, the death of George Floyd, which sparked protests across the country for racial injustice and police brutality, awakened many people to the root of the issues that led to Kaepernick's peaceful demonstration – an expression designed to raise awareness of these issues, do not belittle the flag or the anthem. Kaepernick, 32, has not played in the NFL since 2016.
"The protest is really trying to hold us accountable for the things we say we believe in. It's about equality and justice for everyone," said Kenny Stills, receiver of the Houston Texans, who knelt during the first week of the 2016 season.
This week, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said that Kaepernick deserves respect and admiration for starting the protest. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll praised his courage and sacrificed his career. Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy compared Kaepernick to Muhammad Ali.
"There are many parallels between Colin and my father," said Ali's daughter, Khaliah. “It maintains 100% integrity, regardless of cost. He made an unwavering commitment to the improvement of his people and took an unapologetic stance against injustice. Many people have tried to discourage our support for Colin, which is unthinkable to me. He is a friend of our family, he is loved and honored. "
Jacob Ali-Wertheimer, a 21-year-old grandson of the boxing legend, is a human and civil rights leader on the Harvard University campus. He is encouraged because more people support the Kaepernick movement, but he realizes that there is still a long way to go.
"Many people do not want to approach race in this country. We do not have a real dialogue on the subject," said Ali-Wertheimer. "It's something that we try to hide and keep away from, and because we don't confront it, I think that's why the two were ostracized in the beginning, and I think it's wonderful that people are now getting closer to what Colin said.
"But we need to get to the point where people can understand, hear and appreciate your message from the beginning, moving forward."
The NFL and its teams expressed support for equality and called for changes. Players want to see more. In a video released on Thursday night, NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes and several of his colleagues asked the league to "condemn racism and systemic oppression of blacks" and "admit wrong in silencing peaceful protest players" .
The league released a statement before the video, saying: “We support the black community because black life is important. Through Inspire Change, the NFL, players and our partners have supported programs and initiatives across the country to combat systemic racism. We will continue to use our platform to challenge the injustice around us. "
Shanahan, who became the 49ers' coach after Kaepernick's last season with the team, spoke volumes about the matter.
"I think people understand a lot more now than they did three years ago and I’m in favor of protests. I’m in favor of change," said Shanahan. "Which is different from time to time, it’s embarrassing to say, probably, but I think whites are more passionate about it now than they were then. This is our ignorance and this is what disturbs black people. They have every right to be upset because they haven't been telling us that for the past few weeks. They have been telling us this since our grandparents, and I have heard it from all my friends since I was 14 years old. Then I heard champion Bailey talking about it in his Hall of Fame speech. It's all the time and it's very long. Whatever needs to change, let's do it. "
Danny Trevathan, linebacker for the Chicago Bears, said the global pandemic gave people more time to think about racial issues.
"Back then, it was just about one situation, about the military, and that was what everyone was focused on," said Trevathan. "I have people in my family who fought for America in the armed forces, in different branches. So it wasn't about that. It was about something bigger than this problem. It was about police brutality and the way we treat people. At the moment, I feel that we are taking a different position because people are tired of it. ”
Kaepernick still wants an opportunity to play. A training session in Atlanta last November, organized by the NFL, was chaotic and resulted in no job offers.
"Colin is a talented footballer," said Russell Wilson, star of the Seahawks. “I remember playing against him; the man could play football. But he defended something much bigger than football. And that is people's lives. He was defending the people who came and went and for everyone who is African American and the oppression that is taking place. "
Still, Eric Reid and Albert Wilson, former Carolina Panthers, Carolina Panthers' bodyguards, continued to support Kaepernick's fight, kneeling during the anthem last season.
"The boos at the stadium, people shouting to get up, telling me to leave the country, death threats, hate messages, hate on social media were alarming," says Stills of the reaction he faced. "I still can't understand the amount of hatred against someone basically asking everyone to feel compassionate towards others."
AP Pro Football writer Josh Dubow and AP sports writer Tim Booth and Steve Megargee contributed to this report.
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