It started with one man on a bench. Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who led the San Francisco 49ers to their last Super Bowl appearance, decided on August 14, 2016 to remain seated during the playing of the national anthem.
Just three years earlier, an analyst for ESPN called Kaepernick “one of the greatest quarterbacks ever.” But after a heartbreaking loss in the Super Bowl in 2013, followed by another postseason defeat at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in 2014, and after a litany of surgeries, by the 2016 season, his future was uncertain.
Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret who also happened to play long snapper for the team that snatched the 2014 NFC Championship game from Kaepernick, sent him a letter after it finally made the news that he was sitting during the anthem. Many don’t remember, but there was a time when Kaep’s protest went entirely unnoticed. Boyer asked the QB to kneel instead of sitting. It was a compromise to still maintain his protest against police brutality and the oppression of people of color in America while ensuring that he didn’t appear to be disrespecting the military.
That very intent was stolen away by the most powerful white man in the world this year. Donald Trump, after having watched more and more players and even teams join in on the protest, decided to turn the entire affair into what he proclaimed was, in fact, disrespect for the military and even the American flag.
It’s all a show, of course. Trump famously fought with the NFL years ago about team ownership, his own efforts to join the ranks of owners rebuffed by then-current league bigwigs.
But the negative publicity generated by Trump attempting to turn Americans against NFL players who participated in the protest — his efforts to get them fired, even — successfully got one man blackballed from the NFL: That same guy who was once hailed by ESPN (and fans everywhere) as one of the greatest ever.
On Sunday, Colin Kaepernick decided to address that. He formally filed a grievance against the NFL for “collusion” to keep him out of the game, despite his ability, his good health, and his availability, especially in a season (this season) that has seen so many injured or faltering quarterbacks around the league. Many fans have commented on the number of QBs who are currently starting for their respective teams who have yet to match even Kaepernick’s worst season, let alone stand a chance of leading their team to the final game of the year.
If he is successful, it could trigger the termination of the 6-year-old collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFL Player’s Association, which is in essence the players’ union representation. Kaepernick’s lawyer, Mark Geragos, explained the suit:
If the NFL (as well as all professional sports leagues) is to remain a meritocracy, then principled and peaceful political protest–which the owners themselves made great theater imitating weeks ago–should not be punished and athletes should not be denied employment based on partisan political provocation by the Executive Branch of our government. Such a precedent threatens all patriotic Americans and harkens back to our darkest days as a nation. Protecting all athletes from such collusive conduct is what compelled Mr. Kaepernick to file his grievance.”
Many have called Kaepernick “the Curt Flood of our generation” for his actions. Flood, as baseball fans will remember, changed the way players and league managers and owners dealt with each other for good. He ushered in the era of free agency, sacrificing his own career in the process of his case, which took him all the way to the US Supreme Court.
Kaepernick himself may be sacrificing his once-promising career. But he will be doing it for an even greater cause than simply his rights and the rights of other players to behave like adults in dealing with their “bosses” in the NFL. It will instead be for the larger cause of justice.
Featured image via Scott Cunningham/Getty Images