In August 2020, players in the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer decided to go on strike, walking off courts and playing fields in protest of systemic racism and police brutality. These strikes, which unfolded in the wake of protests after the deaths of unarmed Black people at the hands of law enforcement, build on a long tradition of Black athletes using their platform to protest racial injustice in the United States.
In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, who was a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers at the time, decided to take a knee as the national anthem played before football games. His goal was to protest police brutality, racial injustice, and systemic inequality. In his own words,
We protest because we love ourselves and we love our people. It was James Baldwin who said, ‘to be black in America and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.’ My question is, why aren’t all people? How can you stand for the national anthem of a nation that preaches and propagates freedom and justice for all, that is so unjust to so many of the people living there? How can you not be in a rage when you know that you are always at risk of death in the streets or enslavement in the prison system? How can you willingly be blind to the truth of systemic racialized injustice?
Kaepernick’s gesture of taking a knee was adopted by a number of other NFL players, including Eric Reid, Jeremy Lane, and Brandon Marshall, among others. Initially, NFL leadership objected to the protest, but after the death of George Floyd, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell endorsed the protests, and they have gained popular support. Over the summer of 2020, taking a knee became a common gesture of protest during Black Lives Matter protests. Colin Kaepernick, however, has not been able to find employment as a professional football player since he left the 49ers in 2017.
Use some or all of the activities in this Mini-Lesson to help students explore the power athletes have to influence us, the symbolism of kneeling as a form of protest, the origin and legacy of the Take A Knee protest in the NFL, the significance of the more recent athlete boycotts, and the long history of athletes protesting racial injustice in the United States.