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More sports likely to see more athletes taking a knee when they return

The athlete protest movement started by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 faded in recent years, but the death of George Floyd appears to have brought it back. As pro leagues return from hiatus, expect to hear from players again.

4 years after Colin Kaepernick's protests, athletes are speaking out again

Colin Kaepernick started a movement when he began kneeling during the U.S. anthem in 2016. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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Taking a knee could be making a comeback

It's been four years since then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee during the U.S. anthem to protest racial inequality and police violence against Black Americans. Kaepernick's protests started during the 2016 NFL pre-season, when Barack Obama was still president. Several NFL players followed Kaepernick's lead that year — some kneeling, some making a more militant gesture by raising a fist during the anthem, a la Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.

Ironically, the movement didn't really catch on until the following season, when Kaepernick was out of the league (blackballed, some have argued). On the Friday night of Week 3, President Donald Trump told the crowd at a rally in Alabama what he'd like to see happen to protesting players: "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired. He's fired!" Trump shouted theatrically in what seemed to be a spin on his old reality-show catchphrase.

Before that Sunday's games kicked off, hundreds of players — Black and white — engaged in some form of protest or signal of support for the protesters. Some kneeled, some sat, some raised a fist, some stayed in the locker room, some linked arms with their teammates. A few players — including superstar receiver Odell Beckham Jr. — even brought their protests into the game itself by raising a fist after scoring a touchdown.

For a while, the NFL protests were the biggest topic in sports. Seemingly everyone with any kind of platform had a strong opinion either for or against them. But, eventually, everybody moved on — including most of the protesting players. By the 2019 season, only a handful were still making an obvious sign of protest during the anthem. The league, which had previously tried asking protesting players to stay in the locker room during the anthem, left them alone. The protests were barely noticed — if at all.

That will almost certainly change after the death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer sparked massive public demonstrations across the U.S. and beyond. Assuming the NFL pre-season kicks off as scheduled on Aug. 6 amid the coronavirus pandemic, and assuming the league continues to have the national anthem played before games, protests figure to be bigger and bolder than ever. And this time, given the apparent shift in public opinion in favour of the Black Lives Matter movement, these protests are likely to find greater acceptance among fellow players, fans, team owners and even the league itself.

Over the last few years, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has tried to stake out a neutral position in an apparent effort to appease the protesting players and their supporters as well as those uncomfortable with their actions (a group that included some players, fans and team owners). But last week, Goodell released a video in which he signalled a new approach. "We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all players to speak out and peacefully protest," Goodell said. "We, the National Football League, believe that Black lives matter."

That statement alone should embolden players to protest again this year. (Future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson has already said he'll "without a doubt" kneel during the anthem this year, and that he expects many players to do the same.) And there's a flip side to that coin: anyone who disagrees with the protests might now be even more reluctant to say so. The NFL employs close to 2,000 players, so it stands to reason that some of them are opposed to protesting during the anthem. That faction was silent during the last round of protests, and it's even more unlikely to speak out after what happened to Drew Brees last week. One of the most respected and beloved players in the league, the New Orleans quarterback was instantly vilified after saying that he "will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States." Brees apologized the next day.

Another thing that might be different this time around is that the protests could catch on in other leagues.

Even though more than 80 per cent of NBA players are men of colour, no one kneeled back when it caught on in the NFL. Some teams linked arms during the anthem, and Boston Celtics players crossed their arms while holding hands, but that's about it. One reason for this may be that the NBA, unlike the NFL, has an explicit rule regarding conduct during national anthems: "Players, coaches and trainers must stand and line up in a dignified posture along the foul lines during the playing of the American and/or Canadian national anthems." And players might be more inclined to respect the rule in part because the NBA has traditionally been more tolerant of players expressing their political views. That has helped foster a more trusting relationship between players and the league — especially during the tenure of current commissioner Adam Silver, who's big on building consensus. Still, it'll be interesting to see whether the NBA softens its anthem rule for this season. The last player to test the boundaries was Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was suspended for one game during the 1995-96 season for refusing to stand. A compromise was reached with Abdul-Rauf, a devout Muslim, that allowed him to pray while he stood.

The NHL rulebook doesn't say anything about players having to stand (or even be present on the ice or on the bench) during anthems, but protests haven't been much of an issue in the overwhelmingly white league. An exception came in October 2017 when Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown raised a fist during the U.S. anthem before a game in Florida. But there's a chance more players could protest if the NHL returns this summer. Yesterday, seven current and former NHL players of colour announced the formation of a group called the Hockey Diversity Alliance, whose goal is to combat racism and push for "acceptance and equality" in the sport. Also, several white players spoke out against racism on social media last week — somewhat surprising given the button-down nature of the league.

With the NHL and NBA still on pause until probably late July at the earliest, our next taste of North American athletes protesting before games could come from women's soccer. The U.S.-based National Women's Soccer League is set to become the first North American team sports league to play games since the pandemic hit. It will begin a one-month tournament on June 27 in Utah. The NWSL features several members of the U.S. women's national team, whose players' association released a statement Monday night demanding that U.S. Soccer repeal its policy requiring players to "stand respectfully" when anthems are played before national-team matches. The policy was created after outspoken star Megan Rapinoe took a knee during the anthem before two national-team matches in 2016. Rapinoe plays in the NWSL but has decided not to participate in the upcoming tournament.

Rapinoe's absence might not matter, though. It's no longer just a handful of athletes who are speaking out. More and more are using their voices now. As their leagues begin to return from hiatus, we're going to be hearing from them.

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