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Why are NFL players kneeling? How Colin Kaepernick began a phenomenon

STEVE ANGLESEY explains the surge of protest in America’s biggest professional sports league

The sensation of being stranded in darkness while facing insurmountable odds is nothing new for Colin Kaepernick.

In February 2013, his San Francisco team were trailing by 22 points in the Super Bowl when the lights went off in the New Orleans Superdome. Once power was restored 34 minutes later, the quarterback rallied the 49ers to the brink of an improbable comeback. With less than two minutes remaining and five yards to go, what would have been his winning touchdown pass fell inches beyond the outstretched hands of receiver Michael Crabtree.

Four-and-a-half years on, Kaepernick finds himself in another hole. This time, the opposition is not the Baltimore Ravens but, seemingly, the billionaire owners of the National Football League. With the start of the 2017 American football season upon us, the man once called the future of the NFL is without a job. And many in the sport believe that’s down not to a loss of form but to his protests about racial discrimination in America.

‘It’s not about football,’ said the Seattle Seahawks’ Richard Sherman. ‘It’s about ‘Boy, stay in your place’.’

A player never noted for being overtly political (as a member of the press corps at that Super Bowl, I remember him mouthing only the usual platitudes about God and teamwork), Kaepernick was changed by the summer of 2016, part of an American convulsion at a wave of deaths of blacks at the hands of police. His 2.8m social media followers, previously treated to the usual selfies and sponsor shout-outs, now saw stark and shocking material, most notably a graphic video of Alton Sterling’s shooting death in Louisiana. Kaepernick added the caption, ‘this is what lynchings look like in 2016!’

Next, he used one of the sport’s key rituals as a stage on which to protest. Shortly before kickoff on any NFL gameday, fans, officials and players stand to attention for the national anthem. In a pre-season game against Green Bay, Kaepernick failed to take to his feet. ‘I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,’ he explained. ‘To me, this is bigger than football. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.’ In a skyscraper on the edge of Central Park, the Republican presidential nominee’s ears pricked up. ‘Maybe he should find a country that works better for him,’ said Donald Trump. ‘Let him try. It won’t happen.’

Though Kaepernick would modify his protest in deference to the military members who stand alongside the teams during the anthem, now dropping to one knee as it played, he continued to make his point as an otherwise unmemorable 49ers campaign progressed. At the end of it, by mutual consent, he left San Francisco permanently.

In his final season, Kaepernick had compiled statistics belying talk that he was becoming increasingly unreliable on the field. He’d thrown 16 touchdown passes to only four interceptions and completed almost 60% of his passes. If it wasn’t quite the sizzling play he showed in taking the 49ers to the big one in 2013, and to one game away a year later, it was a return to form after two turbulent seasons in which coaching changes, key player retirements and a focus on building a new stadium saw San Francisco fall from the NFL’s elite to among its also-rans. As a CV, it looked enough to earn Kaepernick a starting role for a Super Bowl pretender, or at the very least a lucrative backup spot at a real contender.

And then a funny thing happened: Nothing.

Extraordinarily for a proven performer at the game’s most prized and best-rewarded position, teams simply looked away. Seattle and Baltimore, both needing veteran insurance in case their starters were lost to injury during the season, said no. Miami, with Ryan Tannehill’s status uncertain, chose instead the much-derided Jay Cutler, who had been in training to become a TV commentator after been dumped by the Chicago Bears.

Then the also-rans began to look away too. The Jacksonville Jaguars, who play one ‘home’ game a year in London in what some see as a precursor to a full-time move to Wembley, shook their heads despite the travails of the eternally under-performing Blake Bortles. The New York Jets kept faith with injury-prone journeyman Josh McCown.

Kaepernick supporters began to follow the money. The Jaguars are owned by the extravagantly moustached Fulham FC boss Shahid Khan, who donated $1million to Donald Trump’s inauguration fund. So did Jets owner Woody Johnson, who has since become America’s ambassador to the UK. Five other NFL bosses did similar. That added to combined donations of more than $8m to Republican causes from NFL owners during the last US election cycle. Was Kaepernick being punished for his vocal dissent? Were teams shying away because of a potential backlash from right-leaning fans and sponsors?

Or were there legitimate reasons for spurning him? Kaepernick operates best in the currently-unfashionable zone-read system, which utilises his skills as a runner as much as his ability to throw downfield. Robert Griffin III, a rising star with the Washington Redskins at the time Kaepernick was on the ascent, has similar attributes and is also currently without a team.

Whichever version of the truth behind the strange limbo of Colin Kaepernick you choose to believe, it continues to polarise America as a microcosm of the country’s long struggle with race, past and present. As another NFL season begins, the talk is as much of his unemployment as it is of whether the New England Patriots might repeat as Super Bowl champions.

There have been pro-Kaepernick protests outside the league’s headquarters on Park Avenue, New York, and this pre-season saw more players kneel during the national anthem in solidarity. Others have raised a clenched fist to the skies as the Star-Spangled Banner plays.

Yet Kaepernick starts the season not kneeling on the sidelines but seated on his sofa. Given the sport’s attritional nature, we may still see him throwing touchdowns again before the end of the season. But for now, in an echo of protests from history, he shall not pass.

Steve Anglesey is a former editor of the American football newspaper First Down

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