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They took a knee, but where do we stand now?

The big uproar

In August 2016, for the first time ever, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided not to stand for the national anthem and instead sat on the bench, intentionally not recognising a tradition that has been around for years in the NFL as well as all other major sports events. As advised by Nate Boyer (former American football player) rather than sitting on the bench, in the following games Kaepernick knelt on the pitch whilst the national anthem was sung.

But what were his is reasons? According to Kaepernick, the US still “oppresses black people and people of colour”, therefore he chose not to honour the tradition of singing the anthem. Kaepernick made it clear that his action was a statement against the racial inequality that disproportionately impacts people of colour. Immediately, his kneeling during the national anthem became a form of controversy. For months, Colin continued to kneel and was joined by other NFL players. His actions caused national uproar and drew a great deal of attention to the matter. Some were disgusted by how he dishonoured the American tradition, whilst others commended him for his bravery and revolt against police brutality in the USA.

Consequences for Colin

Kaepernick kneeling along with fellow team players | Getty Images

Several other NFL players began to kneel

during the national anthem in support of this new movement. However, the bold actions of Kaepernick began to affect his career. Kaepernick’s team made plans to cut him due to the controversy sparked by his actions, leading to him request to opt out of his contract, asking for a release. Unfortunately, after his release, Kaepernick received no contract offers the following year. Unable to accept that his activism cost him his career, in 2017, he later filed a grievance against the NFL for colluding to keep him out of the league.

Why were the consequences so harsh?

Cultural traditions within sport events essentially lay the foundation of the game, whether that be football, basketball, swimming, rugby, athletics etc. When those traditions are challenged, even with good reason - very good reason - there are bound to be people who are upset. The world is profoundly different to how it was fifty, even a hundred years ago, and as a society we have become more open and speak about issues and topics, which were previously taboo, so it’s only natural that certain traditions are also challenged. As individuals, we are all entitled to hold our own opinion on matters, meaning that there will always be people that agree and people that disagree, especially when someone takes a stand on such huge matters.

Have there been changes since?

Since Colin Kaepernick first took the brave action of ‘taking a knee’, a lot has changed in American football. In 2018, the NFL actually banned players from kneeling during the national anthem and told that if they chose not to stand through the national anthem, they were to stay in the locker room.

In 2020, after the death of George Floyd, people began to remember the actions of Kaepernick, and a new debate on activism in sport was revived in the NFL. Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner, said in June 2020 that the league would "encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest." Many NFL players spoke up about their naivety on the real reason behind kneeling, and also believed that the NFL also needed to right its wrongs against Colin Kaepernick in order to make true progress.

Today, we even see people taking the knee outside of sports events. For example, protestors and police took a knee during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, in honour of those who have lost their lives to police brutality.

Racism and racial activism in sports today

Players all over the globe have issues with racial injustice on and off the pitch and regulatory associations are being urged to take action against these. Manchester City footballer, Raheem Sterling, has spoken out on numerous occasions about issues in football, issues that have affected not only him, but his colleagues also. In December 2018, two Chelsea fans were banned following racial abuse at a game, where they shouted racist remarks as Sterling went to collect the ball from behind the goal. Again in March 2019, England reported the racist abuse of fans in Montenegro. Sterling used social media to openly acknowledge the racism he received and to also ‘silence haters’, as he wrote on Twitter in 2019.

Sterling, among many other players, has very openly aired his frustrations with the abuse received, often from fans. We have seen similar actions during the recent Euro 2020 Championship tournament, where most teams took the knees before the match began. We have also seen players, notably Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, take to the world’s stage to address the systemic issues in football such as the portrayal of black football players in the media. The first step to tackle any kind of issue as sensitive, yet as widespread as racism is to simply speak out, start a conversation. More and more of the leading football associations are clamping down on racism with zero tolerance for abuse, but clearly there is still a lot to be done.

England player Marcus Rashford taking a knee during EURO 2020 | Getty Images

Final thoughts

Colin Kaepernick’s bold actions basically cost him his career. Kaepernick stood up (ironically, through kneeling) for a cause that for him was bigger than everything else. He couldn’t have possibly imagined the implications his simple actions would’ve had on his life and more widely the American and global football scene, but what he did know, was what he stood for. The activism we have seen in the past decades is still very much prevalent and needed today. It is through movements like this that we see how some will sacrifice everything to do what is right.

The question we must ask ourselves is: how far will you go for what you believe in?

Mabinty is a poet, writer, spoken word artist and 'good vibes ambassador' who is busy travelling through the creative world. Her current stop is advertising. She is interested in topics relating to lifestyle and current affairs. Her Instagram and Twitter handles are both @mabssr_.

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