SportsPulse: USA TODAY's Trysta Krick looks at how the political, social and racial divisions in America have manifested themselves in sports, and how it might be the only platform that can bring people together. USA TODAY Sports
As the 2017 NFL season approached and Colin Kaepernick remained jobless, civil rights activist Harry Edwards felt compelled to send Commissioner Roger Goodell an email.
The two men have known each other for many years. Edwards always has been direct.
“To make a martyr out of Kaepernick under these circumstances is not only counterproductive, as I tried to explain to Roger, it’s absolutely masochistic,’’ Edwards told USA TODAY Sports. “All they had to do is say ‘We’re going to give him a shot.’ That’s all they had to do.’’
Kaepernick, a free agent quarterback who parted ways with the San Francisco 49ers after last season, has yet to get a shot to continue his NFL career after emerging as a controversial figure for taking a knee during the national anthem and speaking about social injustice.
On Sunday, more than 100 NFL players participated in an unprecedented display as they too protested during the national anthem, many wearing or holding T-shirts that read #IMWITHKAP. This time, though, the message was largely intended for President Trump, who has called for team owners to fire or suspend protesters.
Last month, a crowd gathered outside the NFL headquarters in New York City and protested amid a belief that team owners have blackballed Kaepernick because of his on-field protest.
Trump’s comments last week only elevated Kaepernick’s status and influence.
“Right now he’s a walking, talking martyr,’’ Rev. Jesse Jackson told USA TODAY Sports.
At the beginning, though, Kaeperick sat alone.
It was Aug. 14, 2016. At Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Minutes before kickoff of a preseason opener between the 49ers and the Houston Texans.
Kaepernick, nursing a shoulder injury, was out of uniform and inactive for the game. As the players stood for the national anthem, he remained seated.
His protest went largely unnoticed and unreported. Same thing the following week when the 49ers played the Denver Broncos and Kaepernick sat during the anthem but made no extra effort to call attention to himself. A week later, during the 49ers’ game against the Green Bay Packers, everything changed.
Jennifer Lee Chan of Niners Nation tweeted out a photo of Kaepernick sitting in front of Gatorade coolers during the national anthem. After the game, Kaepernick confirmed his protest.
Then fighting for the starting job he eventually won back, Kaepernick made it clear he was also fighting for social justice and against police brutality against African Americans.
"This stand wasn’t for me,’’ he said. “This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change.’’
The following week, Kaepernick decided to kneel rather than sit during the anthem. He was joined by teammate Eric Reid, who said they came to the decision to take a knee after meeting with Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret.
"I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy," Reid wrote in the New York Times on Monday. "It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite."
There have been no press conferences and no significant statements by Kaepernick since he and the 49ers parted ways by mutual agreement after the 2016 season. In March, several news media outlets reported that Kaepernick no longer planned to kneel during the national anthem.
On Sunday, as player protests swept across the NFL, Kaepernick remained out of public view.
Kaepernick has been photographed in recent months while making donations to organizations that his website says work in oppressed communities. According to his website, he has donated $900,000 of the $1 million he pledged last season.
With Kaepernick remaining on the sidelines, others have protested on his behalf and taken up his cause. The movement seemed to be losing momentum until Trump’s remarks, followed by the unprecedented player protests Sunday.
“I think it’s interesting that Colin Kaepernick is still not playing but we’re still talking about this, which kind of proves his point,’’ said Todd Boyd, a professor at the University of Southern California whose specializes in race and popular culture. “It’s bigger than Colin Kaepernick, because if it weren’t, the story would have disappeared once he got blackballed out of the league.’’
On Sunday, the player protests drew audible boos — the ones Kaepernick used to hear.
Kelly Brown Douglas, a professor at Union Theological Seminary, said the level of opposition and outcry confirm the findings from a 2015 study by the Public Religion Research Institute.
The study reported that 67% of white Americans believe protesting against the government’s unfair practices is good for the country. But, according to the study, that dropped to 48% when white Americans were asked about protests led by African Americans.
“So it wasn’t surprising at all to many of us the response that the majority of Americans, especially white Americans, would have to Colin Kaepernick’s protest,’’ Douglas told USA TODAY Sports. “They focused on him and not the protest. And they said it wasn’t all right for him, as a black American and a man of color, to protest ill treatment.
“It was out of his love for the country and what it stands for that he was trying to call the country to account.’’
With Kaepernick's football career in doubt, speculation has mounted about his next move. Boyd, the USC professor, raised the possibility of activism and politics.
“As he demonstrated,’’ Boyd said, “he has a great platform now based on his actions in the NFL."