When Colin Kaepernick declined to stand for the national anthem before a San Francisco 49ers preseason game last summer, perhaps he knew he was lighting a powder keg that would still burn a year later. Perhaps not.
But what began as a quiet protest of racial inequality in America has become one of the most hotly debated sports controversies in recent memory — and one that has moved to Baltimore in the past week, as the Ravens considered signing the onetime Super Bowl quarterback.
A part-time starter the past two seasons and currently a man without a team, Kaepernick is a hero to those who believe he’s courageously prioritized his convictions above his lucrative football career — and a villain to others, who regard his protest as a frivolous affront to those who’ve defended the flag in war.
Baltimore-based Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson, who spoke to Kaepernick after his initial protest last year, described him as “one of many people who are using their platforms to tell a simple truth about inequity.”
President Donald Trump has said he should “find a country that works better for him.”
By the mere act of expressing interest in Kaepernick and then not signing him immediately, the Ravens thrust themselves into the middle of a national conversation about race, free speech and what fans want from their favorite athletes.
Owner Steve Bisciotti weighed in, saying he didn’t like the way Kaepernick initially sat during the anthem — he later switched to kneeling — and wasn’t sure the quarterback could help the Ravens as they cope with starter Joe Flacco’s back injury. Bisciotti consulted franchise alumnus Ray Lewis, who said publicly that Kaepernick should focus on his play on the field.
Kaepernick’s girlfriend, New York radio personality Nessa Diab, responded with a tweet that equated Lewis and Bisciotti to a slave and his master.
Kaepernick himself has not spoken publicly about coming to Baltimore. He has said he would not continue his national anthem protest into the next football season.
Johns Hopkins political scientist Lester Spence said Kaepernick has captured the attention of supporters and detractors alike because he stands at the divide between two “fundamentally contrasting visions of America.”
“On one side, being American means you keep your mouth shut and believe that we can do no wrong,” Spence said. “But the other tradition says, ‘No, any great institution needs to be criticized to make it better.’”
Bisciotti acknowledged the Ravens would “upset some people” if they signed the quarterback. Several letters to the editor published in The Sun this week made that clear.
“Too many have sacrificed too much to make the American flag an icon of our nation with the liberties, patriotism and the freedoms our society enjoys for us to make an individual who demeans it an object of loyalty and praise,” wrote Edmund A. Nelson of Timonium.
Callers to sports talk show callers, commenters online and fans at the Ravens’ open practice last week have threatened to give up their season tickets of the team signs Kaepernick.
Others said they supported his protest, or said any discussion about bringing him to Baltimore should be on whether he can help the football team on the field.
Spence said Kaepernick is paying a clear price for his stance.
“Saying it’s unfortunate what’s happening to him is an understatement,” Spence said. “But there is value in protest. Whether he ever plays another down in the NFL or not, Kaepernick has created space for other people to feel comfortable speaking out.”
At an appearance in Colorado on Thursday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell rejected the idea that owners had blackballed Kaepernick.
“No, teams make decisions [based] on what’s in the best interests of their team … and they make those decisions individually,” he said.
Kaepernick joined a tradition of American athletes who’ve protested the nation’s policies, from heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali refusing to fight for the United States in Vietnam — he was stripped of his titles and his license to box, and ordered to surrender his passport — to U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising black-gloved fists during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics.
All faced widespread backlash at the time.
Just a few years ago, Kaepernick was considered one of the most dynamic young talents in the NFL, a force the Ravens experienced in Super Bowl XLVII, when he nearly led the 49ers to a remarkable comeback.
But his performance fell off sharply in 2015.
And then he began declining to stand for the anthem.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said before a 49ers preseason game against the Green Bay Packers. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
Kaepernick focused on the spate of deaths of unarmed black citizens, including Freddie Gray in Baltimore, at the hands of police.
His actions drew praise from some NFL peers and activists. Some teammates and players on other teams joined him in kneeling through the anthem. His jersey rocketed to the top of sales charts, and Time magazine named him one of the most influential people of 2016.
But others lambasted Kaepernick. Polls showed the majority of Americans disagreed with his stance and considered him unpatriotic. CBS analyst Boomer Esiason called Kaepernick’s actions “one of the most disgraceful displays I’ve ever seen by a professional athlete on his field of play.”
Former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh initially expressed discomfort with his protest, but later praised him as a “special person and a hero.”
Then-President Barack Obama weighed in, saying Kaepernick had every right to protest, while adding that he understood why the gesture bothered veterans and members of the military.
“I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about,” Obama said. “If nothing else, he’s generated more conversation about issues that have to be talked about.”
Kaepernick drew further criticism when he revealed he had not voted in the 2016 presidential election.
Meanwhile, the 49ers struggled to a 1-10 record in the 11 games he started last season.
He opted out of his 49ers contract in March and became a free agent. At the same time, he said he would not continue his national anthem protest in 2017.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who knew plenty about Kaepernick through his brother, was among those who said the quarterback would and should have a job for the 2017 season. When the Ravens announced Flacco would miss the beginning of training camp because of back discomfort, the question immediately became whether that chance would come in Baltimore.