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Jerry Sullivan: As Kaepernick sits and waits, others raise their voices

Jerry Sullivan

Early this year, during Super Bowl week, I had a brief discussion about politics with the outspoken Martellus Bennett, who was a tight end for the Pats at the time.

"Do you ever wish you lived in the '60s, when athletes like Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) took a stand for civil rights," I asked him?

"My brother and I talk about this all the time," Bennett said.

I asked if he had seen the iconic photo of the "Ali Summit," which showed those four athletes sitting in front of microphones in Cleveland, with eight prominent black men standing behind them. They had gathered in June of 1967 to support Ali's decision to refuse induction into the Army.

"I've seen it," Bennett said. "It's very powerful, because those guys stood for something. Muhammad Ali couldn't box for what, three years? You think about the legacies. People talk about how great they were. But what they believed in and stood for is what they will always be remembered for.

"A lot of guys don't stand for anything," he said. "Even if their heart tells them something else, they won't speak their heart. But in a moment when change was needed, where people who didn't have a voice needed to be heard, they were the voice."

Half a century later, athletes still speak out on racial injustice. Bennett and I talked about Colin Kaepernick, the election of Donald Trump and the reluctance of many athletes to speak out for fear of backlash or lost endorsements.

The issues seem equally relevant a year after Kaepernick first took a knee during the national anthem at a preseason game to protest police brutality and racial injustice in the country. It's even more so in the aftermath of the tragedy in Charlottesville, Va., where a gathering of white supremacists resulted in the death of an innocent woman.

The Charlottesville riot stemmed from the movement to take down statues to Civil War generals and other symbols of the South's racist past. I imagine some of the same people who object to pulling down those statues also vilified Kaepernick for taking a symbolic knee.

Kaepernick is still a free agent, out of a job despite the fact that he's better than most NFL backup quarterbacks. Some teams conceded that they wouldn't sign him because of a likely backlash from fans and advertisers.

"There's going to be a moment in time, soon enough, where I think the conversation is going to be held by several athletes," Bennett told me in February. "It's coming very soon, I can tell you that."

Most players are still reluctant. But some are showing support for Kaepernick by sitting out the anthem during preseason games. That includes Seattle's Marshawn Lynch and Michael Bennett – the equally outspoken older brother of Martellus.

Players have raised fists to protest what they see as the blackballing of Kaepernick. When Michael Bennett urged white players to take part, his Seahawk teammate Justin Britt placed a hand on Bennett's shoulder while Bennett sat during the anthem before Friday's preseason game.

Britt is white. So is Eagles defensive end Chris Long. Long, who grew up in Charlottesville, put his arm around Malcolm Jenkins when his teammate raised a fist during the anthem before the game against the Bills on Thursday.

One person calling himself "Vanilla Guerilla" tweeted me a predictable sentiment, saying Bennett and other NFL players should be silent because "Where can you play football and become multimillionaires? In the USA, love it or leave it!"

So if a black man rises to a certain financial level in America, he forfeits his right to speak out on social issues?

The other complaint is that athletes dishonor the military by protesting during the anthem. Britt and the Bennetts pointed out that they meant no disrepect to the flag or the troops. They're all from military families.

The flag is a symbol. Kaepernick feels the U.S. hasn't lived up to the principle of equality it's supposed to represent. The flag stands for more than the armed forces, though it can be hard to make the distinction when the NFL shoves military patriotism down our throats every week.

But many people don't view Kaepernick as a traitor. More are taking a stand, inspired by the belief that he has been blackballed from the league for exercising his basic constitutional right as an American. Even cops.

Over the weekend, dozens of New York City police officers, predominantly black, staged a rally in Brooklyn, wearing black shirts with an #ImWithKap logo. Frank Serpico, a former City cop famous for his role as a corruption whistleblower, took part at 80.

The police raised their fists and took a knee together to show support for Kaepernick toward the end of the rally. Jumane Williams, a City Councilman, said it was "important to push back on the structure."

A group of black clergymen in Huntsville, Ala., has taken on the NFL power structure. On Thursday, a group of pastors announced #BlackOutNFL, a movement to boycott the NFL until a team signs Kaepernick. In a video that was going viral over the weekend, the pastors pulled black T-shirts over NFL team jerseys or hats, saying "I'm blacking you out!"

Pastor Debleaire Snell said it's strange that Kaepernick could be jobless in a league that employs players who have been convicted of sexual assault and other crimes. Snell also found it interesting that the owners fear a fan and advertiser backlash, but take for granted the black community that's 15 percent of its fan base.

“My belief is simply this," Snell says. "If Colin Kaepernick was willing to take a stand for those of us who are non-celebrities who have to interact with law enforcement on a day-to-day basis, certainly we can take a stand and stand with him.”

The pastors asked fans to use part of the time they would normally spend watching games to mentor boys and girls in their communities. That'll resonate with many NFL players, who support Kaepernick but feel athletes should go beyond symbolic gestures and help young people living in affected communities.

Anquan Boldin, who abruptly announced his retirement on Sunday, is one of the leaders of a group of some 40 NFL players trying to effect change in the criminal justice system. NFL players have visited Congress twice in the past year. Malcolm Jenkins has met with the police commissioner in Philly, worked to register voters and spoken with inmates in a maximum-security Pennsylvania prison.

Boldin, whose cousin was killed by a Florida cop during a roadside stop, has spoken to two senators who sponsored a bill on police reform. He has testified before Congress.

Martellus Bennett has a company, the Imagination Agency, which produces children's books and other items. He wants to inspire kids to believe in dreams. Last summer, he spent time with children on the violence-torn South Side of Chicago.

So while we've come a long way from the Ali Summit, there's a lot that hasn't changed in 50 years. Not everyone wants to take a knee, but more and more NFL players are recognizing the need to raise their voices, if not their fists, to make a difference.

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