Taking Kaepernick's lead, Black athletes increasingly forcing change in pro sports

Almost four years after Colin Kaepernick first kneeled during the American anthem, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted the league was wrong for not listening to player protests earlier. What changed?

Black NFL QBs, Canadian Chuba Hubbard among those using platform to speak out

Colin Kaepernick kneels during the American national anthem prior to a game in 2016. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

It was four years ago, in 2016, when Colin Kaepernick kneeled, and his NFL career came crashing down.

Kaepernick is now 32, and commissioner Roger Goodell says the QB would be welcomed back, encouraging teams to sign him. He said the NFL "was wrong" for not listening to player protests against racism earlier. Goodell didn't give a reason for why Kaepernick hadn't been signed in any of the previous three seasons.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said Kaepernick fits his team's system and is on their emergency workout list.

Kaepernick's protest against racism and police brutality in the U.S. — topics that have once again risen to the forefront in the wake of George Floyd's death on May 25 at the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer — worked in a couple of ways.

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For one, it sparked conversation. It also showed the power imbalance Kaepernick was protesting against. The quarterback accounted for 85 touchdowns and just 30 interceptions in 69 games with the San Francisco 49ers. Twelve of those games came in the season he turned 29, when he began kneeling during the American anthem.

In a league featuring just two minority principal team owners (Jacksonville's Shahid Khan and Buffalo's Kim Pegula, who co-owns the team with husband Terry), Kaepernick has yet to play another game.

A joint lawsuit against the NFL with former 49ers teammate Eric Reid, claiming the two had been blacklisted for protesting, was settled in February 2019.

Goodell was spurred to speak about Kaepernick in recent weeks after a group of star NFL players, including quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, posted a video about racial inequality directed at the league.

"I think that's very telling that the athlete propels him into speaking. But he still is kind of walking up and stopping short of the line of acknowledging Colin and his blackballing and the particular protest that he was mounting," said Amira Rose Davis, a professor of history and African-American studies at Penn State University.

"And I think it's a testament to how things have certainly shifted. But at the same time, it's revealing what work is left to be done."

Howard Bryant, an ESPN writer, said the presence of those star quarterbacks pushed the league to finally say something.

"Anyone who knows a thing about the National Football League knows that player power runs through the quarterback. And to have a quarterback [Mahomes] who not only won the Super Bowl, but a quarterback who might be the best player? Oh, that's got us there. The absolute icon of the league," Bryant said.

WATCH | Roger Goodell says NFL should have listened to player protests:

Consider: Super Bowl MVP Mahomes, two-time Pro Bowler Watson, reigning MVP Lamar Jackson and Dallas Cowboys starter Dak Prescott have all debuted since Kaepernick first took a knee.

Before them, white quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees were typically the league's leading voices.

Now that the NFL's most marketable stars are speaking out on the league's racial imbalance first addressed by Kaepernick, Goodell is forced to answer publicly.

"This is not going to go away unless they deal directly head-on with Colin Kaepernick," Bryant said.

NFL leadership has also been questioned, with just three Black head coaches in a league where 70 per cent of the players are Black.

Canada's Hubbard uses his platform

Bryant said the racial imbalance seeps into the U.S. college football game, too, where well-compensated white coaches make millions of dollars off the performances of their mostly Black, but all uncompensated, athletes.

"They don't care about where they come from. They care about their mission. And they feel that they're able to essentially enrol the players and the players are not going to push back. How far can you push?" he said.

Canadian running back Chuba Hubbard, who plays at Oklahoma State under coach Mike Gundy, threatened a boycott of the program on Monday after a picture surfaced with Gundy wearing a One America News T-shirt. OAN is a far-right U.S. news network.

Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard carries the ball during a November 2019 game. Hubbard recently called out coach Mike Gundy for wearing a controversial T-shirt. (Chris Jackson/The Associated Press)

Within hours, a video from the school was released including Hubbard and Gundy, in which Hubbard apologized for going about his grievance the wrong way. Davis said the apology is proof of how power works.

"He's standing there saying sorry — sorry for what, I wanted [to know]. For what exactly?" Davis said.

The next day, Gundy posted another video with a fuller apology for wearing the controversial T-shirt.

"I think that's more of what you've been seeing this moment. And you have more people willing to uplift [Hubbard] and say, 'Listen, you don't have to back away from that.' But I think that I mean that was also a very revealing moment, because it only goes so far," Davis said.

Still, Hubbard may have felt comfortable even voicing his opinion because of the protests and mass sharing of stories in the weeks since Floyd's death.

"There's a convergence of interests where all of a sudden people who might have been able to look away before haven't been able to look away. And I think what that has meant is that organizations have been compelled to say something. The needle has moved. They have to act," Davis said.

Causing change at the top

In soccer, the English Premier League returned Wednesday with each player wearing jerseys that said, "Black Lives Matter" instead of their name on the back. Teams also kneeled when the whistle blew to start the game for several seconds in protest of racism worldwide.

Both moves were greenlit by the league at the request of players.

WATCH | EPL players kneel at kickoff:

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Back in 2016, American women's soccer star Megan Rapinoe kneeled during the anthem in solidarity ahead of an NWSL game. The country's sport federation condemned the move at the time but repealed its ban against kneeling last week.

Rapinoe's teammate, Crystal Dunn, said Tuesday she didn't kneel at the time because as a Black woman on the roster bubble, she was worried about her job. It is telling that Dunn only felt comfortable giving her reasoning now.

"I think that this moment has given cover for athletes who might not have been empowered to be vocal before to really raise their voices collectively. And when you see collective kind of labour action like that, you see response videos. You see people needing to actually engage with athletes in a different way," Davis said.

In the NBA, notable players like Kyrie Irving and Dwight Howard have suggested that restarting the season could take away from the current Black Lives Matter movement. In response, the league called it a "central goal" to bring attention to "combating systemic racism."

"One of the reasons why the NBA looks on its face a little different from the NFL is because the biggest stars in the NBA from five, six years ago were very vocal," Davis said.

"The biggest stars in the NFL, particularly the white quarterbacks, were not as vocal. [They] were not vocal at all. And I think that that's one of the things is the NBA followed its superstars and the NFL could take steps to shut things down."

For the NFL, that may no longer be the case.

With files from CBC's Jamie Strashin and Michael Drapack

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