Colin Kaepernick has lost three years of his prime career in a sport with a cripplingly short span. He now stands as a historic political sports figure of the stature of Mohammad Ali. Torn apart in his times, denounced, Kaepernick helped awaken a nation to the brutality of the American state. And his jersey, the shoes he wore that first time he took a knee will stand at the Smithsonian’s African-American Museum of History and Culture not far from Ali’s gloves…
Kaepernick first kneeled on August 26, 2016, in his sixth season with the San Francisco 49ers, during a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, at home. The New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees blasted Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem, “disrespecting the flag,” damning America.
“People wanted to make it about the flag or support for our soldiers,” the sociologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley Harry Edwards argued the quarterback’s intention at the time. “No, it’s about the systematic murders under the cover of the badge, where nobody is charged or even prosecuted.”
Now, in response to the death of George Floyd and the ensuing demonstrations, Brees apologized, twice. “I am your ally,” the New Orleans Saints quarterback said. Now the owners stand in line to issue their apologies. The commissioner of the National Football League, Roger Goodell, stood by. Now he apologizes. “It has been a difficult time for a country,” Goodell said.
Kaepernick has lost three years of his prime career in a sport with a cripplingly short span. He now stands as a historic political sports figure of the stature of Mohammad Ali. Torn apart in his times, denounced, helped awaken a nation to the brutality of the American state.
“I am not allowed to work in America and I’m not allowed to leave America,” the great Muhammad Ali said in February 1969 as he began his apartheid from the sport of boxing for refusing to be drafted to the war in Vietnam. Already one of boxing greats, he had won for the US at the Olympics in Rome. He had defeated the behemoth Sonny Liston to win the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” he had already jived and poked. As his trainer said of those years:“best years of his life”: “it seemed impossible to hit him.”
And then the professional boxing associations made him sit as does now Kaepernick. Ali’s crown was taken from him. Ali tried to book a fight on an Indian reservation, outside the reach of the federal government. But the Pima tribe turned him down. He would mar the memory of their Native American soldiers who fought in the war in Vietnam, they said. He, like Kaepernick, was boycotted during prime years in a sport with a cripplingly short span. And, “no, they miss me,” he hit back.
Three years before, in May 1966, Ali, at 24 years of age, had declared himself a conscientious objector. Like those burning their draft cards, those fleeing to Canada, he was unwilling to be drafted into the U.S. Army to go overseas to fight in Vietnam. It was against his religion as a Muslim and against his race as a man of color. On April 28, 1967, he refused his draft board calls. Three times, in dramatic gatherings, Lt. Col. J. Edwin McKee commanded he step forward for induction. Ali kneeled to become the most famous of conscientious objectors to the war.
Jackie Robinson denounced him. Joe Louis denounced him. By June 1967, as the war the on the Indochine Peninsula escalated to a brutal lather, Ali was convicted of draft dodging in Houston. Under selective service law, he was sentenced to five years and released on bail, a $10,000 fine. His license to box was revoked. “When I fly out of Houston,” Ali wrote in his memoir, “I’m flying into an exile that will eat up what boxing experts regard as ‘the best years of a fighter’s life.’ ”
“I’m just about broke,” he admitted to his fans and those jeering alike. He was celebrating his first marriage anniversary with one child and another on the way. Ali went home to Louisville, Kentucky and found work appearing at a boat show.
In May 1969, a federal court of appeals upheld the ruling, by then 500,000 American soldiers were deployed in Vietnam. Ali had no sport. He had little support. And he sank into depression. Still, he traveled college campuses preaching his word against the war, against systemic racism and, more controversially, against the watering down of black culture through interracial marriage. For three years Ali took a knee until his boxing license was reinstated. In his first fight back, on October 26, 1970, he knocked out Jerry Quarry in the third round.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he explained with an eloquence far beyond those in and out of his sport, shedding a light on the brutality of a war far off in a little known land, broadcasting the atrocities to an audience that heretofore could — as now — be shut out with a turn off of their television knobs. “And shoot [the Vietnamese] for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people?”
The war in Vietnam ground on for five more years, two million Vietnamese northern and southern dead; 58,000 Americans. Ali’s conviction was eventually overturned in the Supreme Court in 1971. The ruling was just 5 to 3.
Kaepernick has sat for almost four years, losing prime years of his career as his message has, with the death of George Floyd, swelled to a pitch of Enough. He kneeled. Now tens of thousands of his fellow citizens have followed his exampled. They have kneeled. Not to disrespect the flag but to call out police brutality. And his jersey, the shoes he wore that first time he took a knee will stand at the Smithsonian’s African-American Museum of History and Culture not far from Ali’s gloves.