By George Hamilton III
Howard University News Service
It was a clear Friday night in August of 2016 with a few clouds passing over Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. The San Francisco 49ers were playing the Green Bay Packers in the third week of the NFL preseason.
For NFL Network reporter, studio analyst and NFL.com senior writer Steve Wyche, this was another game he was watching as a football fan. However, he noticed something that many people didn’t notice; 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the singing of the national anthem for a third straight week.
Kaepernick had sat the previous two weeks during the anthem, but no one thought anything because he was not in uniform. He was recovering from three surgeries for injuries throughout the 2015-16 season.
Wyche had reason to speculate that something bigger was happening with Kaepernick as he was in uniform against the Packers and still decided to sit during the national anthem. So, he broke the story of why Kaepernick was sitting and eventually kneeling during the national anthem. And Wyche’s story was the beginning of what would become one of the biggest movements in modern history that linked culture, politics and sports.
“Kaepernick & America,” a new documentary directed by D.C. native Tommy Walker, takes viewers on a journey into Kaepernick’s life and legacy, navigating the world not only as a biracial football player, but also as an activist. It was the focus of a screening and discussion sponsored by the Howard University Association of Black Journalists and the Department of Media, Journalism and Film.
The documentary, produced by Gary Cowen, shows Kaepernick’s days of getting ready for the NFL draft, becoming a star for his hometown team and fighting for the Black Lives Matter movement. This fight ultimately cost Kaepernick his football career, but he showed America the message it needed four years before George Floyd’s murder.
The documentary is told from the lens of Black journalists, activists and coaches including Howard alumnus Steve Wyche. The film also features well-known journalists Don Lemon, Pam Oliver, activists DeRay McKesson and April Dinwoodie, former Army Green Beret-turned-football player Nate Boyer and Grambling State head coach Hue Jackson, who was the coach of the Oakland Raiders when Kaepernick was drafted.
As an aspiring journalist, I found this documentary truly riveting not only because Kaepernick was on my favorite team and is one of my favorite players, but also because people who look like me told the story of his activism after the fame he garnered.
Growing up in Harbor City, California, a small city 20 miles away from Los Angeles, my 49ers fandom came from my great-grandfather on my mom’s side who lived in San Francisco, which has always been interesting considering he died before I was born. Through the ups and downs, I have been a fan of the San Francisco 49ers. I remember when our team was looking at Kaepernick ahead of the 2011 NFL draft. That was the year Alex Smith led us to the NFC championship game with first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh.
With Harbaugh coming from college, the 49ers wanted a quarterback who could make plays with his legs and arm. Following Kaepernick throughout his days at the University of Nevada, I was ecstatic when we drafted him with the 36th overall pick. He had the makings of being the next great franchise quarterback, with so much potential and room to grow under Harbaugh, a coach known for developing quarterbacks during his time at Stanford.
As a fan, the way Kaepernick took the starting job over Smith was tough to watch in 2012, but I knew that Kaepernick could do things that Smith could not do on the field. Kaepernick was the embodiment of the quote “Talent can take you so far; hard work can take you anywhere.” Leading the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII that year was the start of the fame that came with all the hard work he had put in since being drafted.
The one thing the film highlights that I really like is the journey from being in the spotlight to heavy criticism before the national anthem controversy. I remember the 49ers going from two NFC championship games and a Super Bowl appearance to being a middle-of-the conference team.
While Kaepernick had the fame, magazine covers and everything that came with being a star quarterback, he also had to take the criticism that came after an 8-8 season resulting in Harbaugh and the team parting ways. Kaepernick wasn’t the same player after that, simply because of his injuries over the next two years and the coach who played a pivotal role in bringing him to the 49ers was gone.
Fast forward to 2016, which was a weird time for me being a 49ers fan and a Black person in America. When Kaepernick first began to sit during the national anthem, I was a 15-year-old kid going into his sophomore year of high school and still figuring out what it meant to be Black in America. I went to a diverse high school, but my class had only about 10 to 15 Black people, and it was difficult for us to understand what was going on.
To give some background, after the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012, my parents sat me down and gave me the talk. They were teaching me about racism and told me not to wear a hood over my head. Due to my naivety, I replied to one of their statements with, “I can’t wear a hood even when it’s cold?” They replied sternly, “Yes. If anything, take a beanie with you.”
At this point, I was realizing that others saw my skin color as a weapon, even though people who knew me perceived me as a kind and friendly person. Then the Michael Brown shooting happened in 2014, and my family revisited the conversation of what to do if pulled over by police as the driver or as a passenger. My parents told me: “Hands on the steering wheel or hands on the dashboard so that the officer can see your hands, and when they ask for your license and registration, ask if you are allowed to grab both slowly so that they don’t mistake you for grabbing a weapon.”
Although I never read Steve Wyche’s article until after the screening, I remember reading the headlines, watching SportsCenter on ESPN and local news after the Packers-49ers game. I remember watching the interview Kaepernick did after the game with my parents. “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.”
The documentary has this exact quote from the post-game interview. It also includes former Army Green Beret and football player Nate Boyer reading the open letter in the Army Times that he wrote to Kaepernick ahead of the 49ers last preseason game against the San Diego Chargers, which happened to be Military Appreciation Night. This article was one that taught me about people who are willing to listen, learn and understand what Kaepernick is fighting for and why the fight was important. Boyer was among the white people who listened, and he was the person who suggested that Kaepernick kneel for the anthem instead of sit, as he tells it in the film, a suggestion that made sense but ultimately angered people even further.
Throughout the 2016-17 season, Kaepernick knelt during the anthem. Even though Kaepernick’s message was to protest police brutality against Black people, many people decided to make it about the flag, which is not what Kaepernick was doing. The president at the time also made it about the flag.
During a 2017 rally, he said: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
While the president was talking about Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s teammate who joined his protest movement in 2016 along with Eli Harold, it was disheartening as a Black person to hear the president, who is supposed to be a leader, say that. Citizens have a right to protest under the First Amendment.
Kaepernick would not be brought back to the 49ers after the 2016-17 season, and Kaepernick would not be picked up by any NFL team for almost three years, until the NFL gave him a random tryout in 2019. Although Kaepernick was one of the 64 best quarterbacks in the league, owners blackballed him.
It had been 1,090 days since Kaepernick was on an NFL field, and the NFL had been receiving so much backlash from fans that they were “forced” to give him a tryout. The league was ultimately saying, “Well, we will give him a tryout, and if no team signs him after the tryout, we at least tried to help him get back on the field.”
Although Kaepernick showed that he was still a great quarterback during the tryout, teams were still not interested because of the potential backlash if they signed him. So, that was essentially the end of his career. If I could have asked him if he was OK with that at the time, he would have probably said yes.
By putting his career on the line, Kaepernick garnered the attention of athletes across sports leagues around the world who joined his protest. Football teams and schools across the country, like my high school, joined this protest against police brutality. During my junior year, the Black Student Union at our school had discussions about kneeling during the national anthem at a pep rally.
These meetings eventually spread to my class of Hispanic, Asian, and Black students who discussed why Kaepernick’s message needed to be pushed forward. So, at a pep rally in February of 2018, our entire class kneeled during the national anthem, with some people having their fists in the air. We didn’t care about the talk beforehand of our class getting suspended, because the message needed to continue being heard.
Then came May 25, 2020, when George Floyd’s murder showed the world what Kaepernick had been protesting four years earlier. For eight minutes and 46 seconds, the world watched Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck. After seeing side-by-side images of Chauvin’s knee and Kaepernick’s knee, many people understood why Kaepernick sacrificed his career for a greater cause. Many people started having tough conversations about race.
To Gary Cowen and Tommy Walker, thank you for documenting Kaepernick’s journey through the eyes of Black journalists and activists who understood the what and why of Kaepernick’s message. For Howard alum Steve Wyche, thank you for being a journalist first and advocating for your story to be published. And for Colin Kaepernick, thank you for being an inspiration and using your voice to advocate for our people, even if it meant sacrificing your career for a greater cause.