Understanding The Origins Of Why Colin Kaepernick Decided To Take A Knee

"It is often overlooked that Kap’s decision to take a knee began as a tactful compromise with a veteran member of the US Army Special Forces."

Photo credit:Photo: Chris Carlson/Associated Press

| October 18 2017,

8:58 pm

Roger Goodell’s formal request for athletes to stand during the national anthem confirms the NFL’s concession to a convoluted rendition of Colin Kaepernick’s protest. In it’s plea for players to “honor our flag and country,” the commissioner’s league-wide letter essentially frames kneeling as a contemptible act. Donald Trump excoriated the NFL for allowing protest during the country’s love song, and the McCarthyist tactic worked. Dialogue over Kaepernick’s dissent has devolved into a squabble over nationalism, forced patriotism and free speech. 

But any confabulation about honor, respect and the like without revisiting the origin and path of Kap’s protest is remiss. 

It is often overlooked that Kap’s decision to take a knee began as a tactful compromise with a veteran member of the US Army Special Forces. Nate Boyer, a Green Beret and witness of “genocide firsthand in Darfur,” penned an open letter to Kap after spotting him sitting during the national anthem in 2016.

“I’m not judging you for standing up for what you believe in. It’s your inalienable right,” Boyer wrote. “What you are doing takes a lot of courage, and I’d be lying if I said I knew what it was like to walk around in your shoes. I’ve never had to deal with prejudice because of the color of my skin, and for me to say I can relate to what you’ve gone through is as ignorant as someone who’s never been in a combat zone telling me they understand what it’s like to go to war.” 

Kap could have easily ignored the letter. But in an effort to qualify his grievance in his setting while appreciating Boyer’s concerns, the two met and found common ground — Kap on one knee, Boyer on two feet beside him, and both showing consideration for each other’s positions, opinions and experiences.

But why was taking a knee chosen as a final settlement? For Boyer as a previous long snapper and Kap spending a great chunk of his life on the field, the gesture is almost intrinsic. Youth players are trained to take a knee from their earliest coaches — and it is a lesson surely rooted in displaying reverence for authority.

But more relevant to Kap’s circumstance is a second reason football players might take a knee: for an injured player. 

In an article questioning whether players should be required to take a knee during a competitor’s injury, Bob Cook writes:

It's not a written rule that players do this, and I couldn't tell you when this started. But it's become so ingrained in the sport that when that protocol is breached, people get upset…

I can see why it's done. It's a sign of respect and concern when someone is hurt, but more than that putting players in that position means they're not moving, chattering, or doing anything else than could look disrespectful. It also sends a signal to the stands that the injury is serious, and everyone should be concerned.

On that premise, analogizing an injured athlete to the trauma of police brutality — Kap’s most-honed cause — is proper. Families have been pained and ruined as a result of injustice. Lives have been lost. Far too many families like those of Philando Castile, Freddie Gray and others have shouted from the sidelines for someone to take notice, show concern and take action. And that’s exactly what Kap did in his manner, and with all due respect. 

Moreover, the suppression of the underlying reasons for protest, glossed over in messages like Goodell’s letter, only serve to prolong the chronic injury of racism and oppression in America. There can be no healing without an honest diagnosis. And when national attention-grabbing opportunities like these are converted into controversies, it’s not clear if we’ll ever get to that point.