Journalist Mike Freeman tells the story of anti-racism protests by NFL athletes and the backlash they faced from the NFL, right-wing fans and even the President.
It’s been four years since Colin Kaepernick decided he could no longer stand while the national anthem played before an NFL game. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback was outraged at the ongoing killings of black Americans by police officers and the oppression of people of colour in general, and wanted to protest. He initially opted to sit on the bench. However, after consulting Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret and NFL player, he and his teammate Eric Reid decided instead to kneel as a sign of respect.
Other players joined the protests that season, leading to criticism, particularly from those who wilfully misunderstood the protests as being against the anthem itself, or the flag, or America. In the off-season Kaepernick opted out of his contract after the 49ers said they planned to release him. He remains unsigned, either because of deliberate blackballing by NFL team owners or because none were willing to risk a backlash from right-leaning fans. The claim that Kaepernick was not picked up because he isn’t a good enough player has been repeatedly debunked by analytics.
With Kaepernick out of the league the protests might have petered-out if it weren’t for the intervention of Donald Trump, who used a rally speech to call for “son of a bitch” players to be sacked if they knelt for the anthem. His slur led to mass protests by players and left the NFL floundering in an escalating war of words with the president.
Football’s Fearless Activists tells the story of the protests, extending the focus beyond Kaepernick to include Reid, Kenny Stills and others who led and sustained the protests. Mike Freeman explores not only the reasons for the protests but also the effect they had on players, who put their livelihoods at risk and, in many cases, received threats from the public. Meanwhile, Stills was traded after he protested, Colts cornerback Antonio Cromartie was released after protesting, and other players report being warned that protests could affect their careers.
Fast-forward to 2020 and Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests spread across America and the world. There are many reasons for that, going far beyond the actions of NFL players. What is clear, though, is the impact of Kaepernick and his colleagues on this year’s protests. Politicians, police officers and corporate executives have been demonstrating their support for BLM by taking a knee. Little more than a gesture in many cases, certainly, but one that has its roots in Kaepernick’s actions four years ago.
And the NFL, which threatened and blackballed protestors, and even toyed with banning protests? The league whose owners ran scared of a backlash from right-wing fans and half-heartedly defended its players from a president’s outrage? In 2020, that league’s commissioner publicly declared that “black lives matter” and its teams cancelled practices and issued statements calling for racial justice. Progress, to be sure, but progress earned in part by football’s fearless activists. This book goes some way to recording their impact on history.
Mike Freeman is a journalist with Sportico. He has previously worked at Bleacher Report, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and several other media organisations. He is the author of several football books, including Snake, a biography of Ken Stabler, Undefeated, the story of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, and Jim Brown: The Fierce Life of an American Hero.
More: Mike Freeman Football
One NFL official, who works extensively with the league’s security arm, estimated that over a three-year period, from 2016-2019, protesting players were targeted with approximately 100,000 racial slurs across various social media platforms. That same official said there were dozens of physical threats on social media— namely Facebook and Twitter—aimed at Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid over that same period. Most of those threats, the official said, weren’t deemed credible. “The people who did that were just guys with big mouths trying to scare Colin,” this person explained.
Another player said a general manager once pulled him aside after practice. “I like you,” the player said the GM told him, “and I want you to have a long career in this league. But if you keep protesting, I’m not sure that will happen.”
“The idea is that taking a knee is more respectful,” [Nate] Boyer said in an interview. “When a fallen comrade dies, we stop and take a knee to honor him. I thought, and still do, that Colin taking a knee is respectful. I don’t agree with it, but it wasn’t being disrespectful to the flag or to soldiers.”
John [Harbaugh] spoke privately about how the treatment of [Lamar] Jackson opened his eyes about what black quarterbacks faced and, in a larger sense, opened his eyes to the racism black people face overall.
“John really wants Lamar to stick it up the ass to all his critics,” one source said. “To have a Hall of Fame career. Of course that will help him win, but for John now, part of it’s personal. He wants Lamar to prove a point, and he wants him to open doors for other black quarterbacks who can hurt you outside and inside the pocket.”
Mike Freeman’s writing is always shot through with principle and this book is no exception. His sense of incredulity and outrage that a man who holds the office of President of the United States would spend his time goading athletes on social media is palpable – and warranted. This is not a subject to be dealt with in the ‘view from nowhere’ style that many journalists (particularly American ones) revere, and racism is not an issue that needs to be balanced with views from both sides.
The book’s great strength is in humanising the players who led the NFL protests and explaining the extent to which they really did take a risk. It’s easy to dismiss these men as rich sports stars playing at politics, but Freeman shows just how mistaken such a caricature would be. These players risked their careers, opened themselves up to unacceptable levels of abuse on social media and from the fans in the stands, and in some cases genuinely feared for their safety. This was by no means an easy decision for them.
Football’s Fearless Activists both benefits and suffers from its timing. The issue could scarcely be more topical, so the book will likely attract many people who want to understand the roots of the protests in the NFL. However, it feels now as if the story ends in the middle. The book wraps up, via an epilogue, in June 2020, but even since then events have moved on. The opening of the 2020 NFL season saw fans boo a ‘show of unity’ in Kansas City, while players knelt during the anthem at other games across the league Freeman does a good job of explaining how the foundations were laid but this is a book that will merit a second edition – or an entire second volume – in a few year’s time.