All Colin Kaepernick ever asked was for his country to have a conversation about race.
This, he warned, would not be easy. Such talks are awkward and often end in a flurry of spittle, pointed fingers and bruised feelings. But from the moment the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback first spoke about his decision to kneel or sit during the national anthem, he said was willing to give up his career to make the nation talk.
In one speech on Friday night, Donald Trump gave Kaepernick exactly what he wanted. With a fiery blast at protesting NFL players that seemingly came from nowhere, the president bonded black and white football players with wealthy white owners in a way nobody could have imagined. By saying any player who didn’t stand for the anthem was a “son of a bitch” and should be fired by his team’s owner, Trump crossed a line from which no one could look away.
Come Sunday afternoon, players who wanted nothing of a racial dialogue stood before giant flags, linking arms in protest. Owners who once wished their kneeling players would just stop offending fans fired off statements in their support. Networks who have avoided showing the raised fists of dissent had no choice but show the rows of players standing strong against Trump’s rage.
Whether anyone wanted it or not, Trump has forced the US to have the conversation Kaepernick has been requesting.
You could see it in the words of New York Giants owner John Mara, who once said many of his team’s fans would “never (come) to another Giants game” if one of his players refused to stand for the anthem. This weekend he and co-owner Steve Tisch said Trump’s remarks were “inappropriate, offensive and divisive”.
“We are proud of our players,” they said, “the vast majority of whom use their NFL platform to make a positive difference in our society.”
You could hear it in the voice of London Fletcher, a player so tough he never missed a game in his 16-year career but also a strong Christian who dodged controversial topics during his playing days. On Sunday, he told CBS Sports he was angered by Trump’s words “because there is a racial undertone to his comments and the way I heard it is ‘you black SOB get off the field’.”
You could even feel it in the tweets of people like former ESPN reporter turned conservative commentator Britt McHenry, who announced she was not watching the NFL because of the anthem protests or Baltimore Ravens fan Bobby Blivins who put his season tickets up for sale on Twitter after many of the team’s players kneeled at Wembley Stadium.
You could feel it, of course, in Trump’s own words. On Sunday afternoon, as the president headed back to Washington from his New Jersey golf club, a reporter asked: “Are you inflaming racial tensions, sir?”
“This has nothing to do with race,” Trump said, talking, of course, about race. “I never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.”
All of them were having some form of the talk Kaepernick so desperately wants to have. Their outrage was real and their words loaded with phrases that often throw America on to the third rail of public debate but their anger – regardless of the meaning behind it – represented the beginnings of an essential dialogue that often we are too polite to initiate.
“I think this is something that can unify this country,” Kaepernick said in the summer of 2016, at his first press conference about his protest. “If we can have the real conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people – if we can have this conversation there’s a better understanding where both sides are coming from. (And) if we can reach common ground and can understand what everyone’s going through, we can really affect change.”
Earlier this year, the sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards, who has worked with the 49ers, told the NFL Network Kaepernick had achieved something that Barack Obama and all the nation’s activists and prominent black voices had not. He had ignited a discussion that had been missing for generations.
When Kaepernick’s proclamation that he might be sacrificing his career turned out to be prophetic and no team signed him after his release from the 49ers the conversation simmered over the players who continued his protest. Nothing has given Kaepernick’s protest fuel like Trump’s words. Instead of dissecting another football Sunday, much of America is asking why the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks didn’t take the field for the anthem.
The discourse might not be civil. It probably isn’t reasoned or rational. But it’s discourse. And, really, that’s the reason Kaepernick took his knee. Just when his absence got lost in reports of who kneeled for the anthem or who did not, Donald Trump stood behind a lectern in Alabama and gave the NFL a big old megaphone.
Everyone who sat in front of football on Sunday was forced to have Colin Kaepernick’s great national conversation. That might be the biggest victory of the career he has given up.