Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 30, 2021

Book Review: Standing Up By Kneeling Down

The spotlight usually shines brightest on those at the center of the stage.  This maxim of the performing arts also applies when the stage is a playing field, and the performance is athletic in nature.  Sports stars remain so not just during games but also when attention turns to their actions off the field, in this case on the sidelines.  So it was that when Colin Kaepernick first chose to sit on the San Francisco 49ers bench during the playing of the national anthem prior to his team’s third preseason game in 2016, and then when he continued protesting racial injustice by kneeling during the anthem for the remainder of that NFL season, the quarterback who had been the 49ers’ signal-caller in Super Bowl XLVII little more than three years earlier immediately became a national lightning rod.  By quietly taking a knee, Kaepernick caused many to stand up and scream, including countless citizens who would never count themselves as football fans.

In the ensuing weeks and months, several other professional athletes, both in the NFL and the major leagues of other sports, joined Kaepernick’s protest.  But their numbers were always few, and when Kaepernick found himself unemployed one season later, activism by kneeling gradually faded as the attention of both the media and fans moved on.

Or so it seemed at the time.  But as Dave Zirin reveals in “The Kaepernick Effect,” the impact of the quarterback’s protest was far more extensive when one looks at the whole of the massive stage that sports occupy in America.  Far beyond the stadiums and arenas that house famous professional franchises, young athletes at the high school and college level responded to and were influenced by Kaepernick’s profoundly simple action.

This is Zirin’s tenth book, all of which focus on the nexus of sports and politics.  The winner of multiple awards and the first staff sportswriter in the long history of The Nation magazine, his body of work is a powerful reminder that while some fans loudly complain that the two subjects shouldn’t mix, the reality has long been otherwise.  In particular, because the ranks of players in some sports include a greater proportion of BIPOC individuals than is the case in the population, and because of the exclusionary history of far too many of our professional leagues, sports are an arena where issues of race are always near the surface.

When Colin Kaepernick’s knee hit the ground, it shattered that already thin barrier for scores of young men and women playing different sports on local teams across the country.  Zirin’s book is a series of interviews with many of them, along with accounts of their backgrounds and the consequences of the decision each made to kneel during the national anthem. 

If the book at times seems repetitive, it is only because so many of the stories are depressingly similar.  A young person deeply troubled by local, and often personal, incidents of racism, is further shocked by national stories of black men and women losing their lives at the hands of state authority.  Because of their similar age, the accounts of many cite the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin, but the unbearably painful list of too-familiar names is all there – Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner – and on and on.  The pain turns into a desire to act when they see Kaepernick risking the wealth and fame that these young athletes can only dream of.  That action, taking multiple forms from an individual’s solitary one-time protest to an entire team’s season of solidarity, almost always incurs the wrath of fans and school officials.

Despite the pain they went through, Zirin’s subjects all assert they have no regrets.  Many cite the third verse of Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner,” words that are never sung at any sporting event.  In those eight lines of verse Key, a slaveholder, celebrates the killing of escaped American slaves who fought for the British in the War of 1812.  Several also mention the number of veterans in their families, an important factor only because of the knee-jerk response by many that the anthem protests were an attack on the military. 

It has been half a decade since Kaepernick’s protest and the similar actions by the individuals in Zirin’s book, and he made a point of revisiting his subjects in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the national demonstrations that followed.  Not surprisingly, contacted in those comparatively heady days for the social justice movement, many of Zirin’s interviewees expressed great hope for the future.  Still there remained a few holdouts, who wondered to what extent the public displays of outrage in the summer of 2020 were merely performative.  There is, after all, not a lot of sacrifice involved in posting a black square to one’s Instagram account. 

As Zirin knows from his long commitment to reporting on this issue, and as the subjects of “The Kaepernick Effect” know from personal experience, the real work of the unrelenting march to equality is far more dangerous, and infinitely more wearying.  After all, the foundational document of the nation codified the holding of human beings as chattel, counting each as just three-fifths of a person, and the same section of the U.S. Constitution asserted that those who were indigenous to the continent did not count as people at all.  One cannot expect to overcome that merely by taking a knee, or raising a fist, or refusing to take one step forward.  But as athletes have shown, from Muhammed Ali to John Carlos and Tommie Smith, to Colin Kaepernick and the young women and men in Zirin’s book, even small actions can have big effects.    

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