Kaepernick's protests gain traction, inspiring ire and awe - The Buffalo News

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Kaepernick's protests gain traction, inspiring ire and awe

On the surface, Colin Kaepernick's protest is startling and indecent.

When the national anthem is performed before San Francisco 49ers games, Kaepernick will not stand. He takes a knee, a gesture that has generated headlines and torn at the fabric of American patriotism.

He's considered by many a thankless American millionaire. His jerseys have been immolated.

But Kaepernick's gesture has resonated, too. By Sept. 11, the season's opening Sunday, his jersey was the NFL's best seller.

Until this weekend, Kaepernick was the 49ers' backup quarterback and faced accusations of grandstanding to remain relevant. Sunday afternoon at New Era Field, however, he will start against the Buffalo Bills.

Kaepernick is expected to kneel when Ely-Fagan American Legion Post 1151 from Henrietta presents the colors and Chris Ferrara sings "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The crowd, numbering around 70,000 fans, will react strongly.

How many will have taken the time to look deeper than the surface and try to understand Kaepernick's intentions?

Kaepernick is using the NFL's grand stage to draw attention to racial oppression in America, particularly what he considers systemic failings of police to properly deal with minorities.

"People are talking about the gesture instead of why and instead of how we get this thing fixed," said Nate Boyer, a Green Beret and Bronze Star recipient who has been counseling Kaepernick. "That's where I'm getting frustrated.

"He doesn't hate the anthem. He doesn't hate the song. He doesn't hate the flag. He doesn't hate our country.

"He just wants to see things get better. That's what continually gets lost."

Reasonable people learn Kaepernick's motives yet remain disgusted with his protest. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week called Kaepernick's protest "dumb and disrespectful."

He certainly will get booed – and likely worse – Sunday. Fans have been trying to mount a campaign to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" while the 49ers have the ball.

"When this first started, I thought, 'He's sitting for the national anthem, and that's not good,' " former Bills linebacker Kirk Morrison said. Both of Morrison's parents and one of his aunts are in Bay Area law enforcement.

"Now I get it. I see past what people initially see, what I initially saw."

Morrison last month tweeted a provocative photo of an Oakland prep team taking the anthem protest further. Kaepernick delivered a pregame talk and joined Castlemont High for the anthem. While the Super Bowl quarterback took a knee, the players rolled onto their backs and raised their hands in mock surrender.

"People say you can bring awareness in other ways," Morrison said. "No, you can't. If he hadn't done it this way, then we wouldn't be having the discussion now."

Kaepernick began his silent protest in the preseason by sitting on the bench while the rest of the 49ers stood for the national anthem. Controversy erupted.

Boyer admitted his initial reaction was revulsion. In an open letter to Kaepernick on the Army Times website, Boyer offered to meet with Kaepernick to share a military veteran's perspective. Boyer also wanted to learn Kaepernick's motivations.

With no cameras, Boyer, Kaepernick and 49ers safety Eric Reid met in a San Diego hotel lobby before the preseason finale against the Chargers. Boyer showed them heartbreaking texts from veterans. They heard each other out.

"I believe every word he told me," Boyer said. "His statement is genuine. Our conversation wasn't for show. He's very sensitive to other people's feelings and how it's coming off and whether he's doing it the right way."

Kaepernick agreed with Boyer's suggestion not to sit on the bench and instead to join his teammates on the sideline and kneel to honor the military.

Boyer reasoned people kneel to pray, kneel when there's an injured teammate on the field, kneel at a soldier's grave.

"There are things he said and did initially that he's regretted," Boyer said. "But he took a step back and came from a more open-minded place. He was willing to adjust."

The anthem that night in San Diego, home to the world's largest naval fleet, was sung by an African-American naval officer. It was the Chargers' 28th annual Salute to the Military preseason game.

Kaepernick kneeled. Reid joined him. Boyer stood alongside, his right hand over his heart.

An unpopular stand

John Wooten sees parallels between Kaepernick's protest and Muhammad Ali's controversial avowal against the United States in 1967.

Wooten has intimate knowledge of each man's stand. He was involved in a watershed civil-rights moment, the Ali Summit, five weeks after Ali refused induction into the service. Wooten also is chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an organization that oversees the NFL's hiring of minority coaches and general managers.

"One of the most beautiful things I've seen in my lifetime was Ali's funeral earlier this year, all these people from around the world, speaking about what Ali meant," Wooten said.

"All over the world paying homage to how great Ali was, but back in 1967 ... "

Ali was ordered to report to Houston's Military Entrance Processing Station for induction April 28, 1967. When his name was called, he refused to take the symbolic step forward for the oath. Ali cited his Muslim religious beliefs and his unwillingness to fight for freedom abroad while minorities were oppressed at home.

The Ali Summit took place June 4, 1967, with the Negro Industrial and Economic Union. The group of activist athletes was founded by Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown to promote financial opportunities for African-Americans. Wooten was a Pro Bowl offensive lineman for Cleveland.

Amid skepticism Ali had converted to Islam to dodge the draft and continue his lucrative boxing career, the Negro Industrial and Economic Union wanted to vet Ali before deciding whether to defend him. Also present were basketball legends Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and future Pro Football Hall of Famers Willie Davis and Bobby Mitchell.

"After two or three hours of Ali laying it out to us," said Wooten, who had served in the Army and National Guard, "he really came to show what his beliefs were and why and how he planned to go on with his life if he never boxed again. We came to the conclusion to support him.

"What Kaepernick's talking about and what Ali was talking about was humanity, human dignity, human lives.

"It doesn't seem to bother the American public that these atrocities are happening in Oklahoma or Baton Rouge or Wisconsin. It's happening all over the country. You see it in the news, and then it just fades away."

The Olympic ideal at home

Bills wide receiver Marquise Goodwin has worn the American flag on his uniform. He was a long jumper at the 2012 London Olympics.

In the Bills' locker room Thursday, Goodwin said, "I 100 percent admire," and "I totally agree with" Kaepernick's protest.

Goodwin said he wouldn't kneel, though. Rather than place a hand over his heart, Goodwin puts his hands together in prayer because he said critics couldn't fault him for that.

Twice while recalling the intense pride he felt walking into London Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies, Goodwin raised his right forearm to display his hairs standing up.

"I love the United States of America," said Goodwin, a University of Texas teammate of Boyer's. "I'm pretty sure Colin does, too. He's not saying he doesn't support the troops or the flag. He's saying he wants America to be better than it is.

"When I went to the Olympics, I felt that pride, one of the best feelings you can have as an American. I get choked up. But when you come back to the United States, you don't feel that same unity.

"We're all one team over there. We should be that way here."

A cry from the 'Kill Zone'

Whether on talk shows or in bar conversations, Kaepernick's protest often becomes a binary discussion:

Either he is for America and soldiers and cops, or he is against them.

Castlemont football coach Edward Washington was careful to note most police officers are noble. At the same time, minorities are being treated unjustly.

"It's not about the police department; it's wicked people who happen to be police officers," Washington said. "There's unfair treatment, and somebody had to take a stand.

"Only a racist would be upset with what Colin Kaepernick is doing. This is about people with their hands up, being shot dead."

Washington, 28, is also a social worker at his alma mater. He described Castlemont's neighborhood as "an economically deprived area, and that makes it a kill zone" for his kids and their families.

Washington reached out to Kaepernick as a fellow Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brother. Washington, whose coaching staff wears dashikis to promote black pride, said Castlemont's players conceived the notion to roll onto their backs for the photo that went viral.

"Kids here don't get the opportunity to have their voices heard, don't get the opportunity to use football as a tool to reach their potential," Washington said.

"Now we're having a conversation. That's power. That's the whole purpose.

"It's not even about color. It's about right and wrong. Black people just happen to be treated wrong at a disproportionate rate."

Action above words

Gestures and chitchat are not enough for Boyer.

Action will satisfy him.

"It takes a lot to inspire me, and he is 100 percent on to something," said Boyer, who tried out for the University of Texas at 29 years old despite never playing a down of football and then taught himself how to long snap. He was with the Seattle Seahawks in the 2015 preseason.

"If you really want to shake people, if you make $14 million a year to play football, why not donate all but $1 million? You can live off $1 million and spend the rest on communities and youth and police officers to bridge that divide."

Kaepernick has pledged $1 million in donations for various community causes and the proceeds of his jersey sales. More Kaepernick jerseys were purchased in the week after his protest made headlines than over the previous eight months.

Other players have joined him. Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall, a college teammate of Kaepernick's at Nevada, kneels for the anthem and has met with Denver's police chief to discuss social injustice.

Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin, an African-American and a cop's son, organized a team meeting with Seattle police Wednesday as part of his Building Bridges Task Force. The Seahawks lock arms as a team for the anthem.

Many black players raise a fist. White players have been absent from anthem protests so far.

Wooten acknowledged white participation would be stirring, but not even African-American players should be expected to protest.

"You always have to let people be who they are," Wooten said. "You can't push them or say 'We wish the white players would join in.' No way. Just the same as you can't say, 'All the black players should be joining in.'

"If you feel this is a problem you should be involved in, then you can step forward. It's voluntary. It has to come from your own spirit."

The same could be said for fans. They can't be forced to treat the anthem with reverence.

While some consider the anthem a solemn moment and others celebrate it with cheers, many use the opportunity for a quick beer run or restroom break before kickoff.

"What hurts me more than anything is when the song means absolutely nothing," Boyer said. "I would rather the song and the anthem make somebody feel it's not an accurate representation of what it's supposed to be rather than not give a damn."

That warm August night in San Diego, Boyer heard the boos every time Kaepernick was on the field.

Bills fans are almost certain to treat Kaepernick similarly Sunday.

"I would encourage the fan bases not to do that," Boyer said. "Coming at this situation with a little more respect, as he's trying to do, is important.

"As a country, we're supposed to constantly strive for a more perfect union, which means it's not perfect, and it never will be. But we should pursue perfection.

"That's at the core of what his message really is, and that hasn't been discussed as much. We're going to have guttural reactions and well-thought-out reactions, but he just knows us to do better. He's pushing that conversation along."

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