On This Day: NFL star's national anthem protest sparks 'taking the knee'

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NFL quarter-back Colin Kaepernick (pictured centre), sat down as everyone else stood on 26 August, 2016, in a gesture which would go on to inspire a global movement. (Twitter/Jennifer Lee Chan/SB Nation)
NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick (pictured centre), sat down as everyone else stood on 26 August, 2016, in a gesture that would go on to inspire a global movement. (Twitter/Jennifer Lee Chan/SB Nation)

It is an act that has come to define how sport, politics and the battle against racism is viewed in the 21st century.

Taking the knee has become part of modern sport, with athletes across the world making the gesture before competing to show they are against racism and discrimination in any form.

It is five years since the initial protest that led to the gesture going global.

But it wasn’t done on one knee.

When NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to demonstrate against racial inequality and police brutality in the US, his first instinct was to sit, not kneel.

On 26 August, 2016, the San Francisco 49ers player refused to stand for the US national anthem before a preseason game against the Green Bay Packers.

Kaepernick (centre) went on to take the knee at future NFL games during the US national anthem, and was joined by 49ers teammates. (Getty)
Kaepernick (centre) went on to take the knee at future NFL games during the US national anthem, and was joined by 49ers teammates. (Getty)

He sat himself on the bench at the side of the field instead, in a gesture that almost went unnoticed.

His subtle protest was inadvertently captured by an overhead photograph taken and tweeted by journalist Jennifer Lee Chan.

However, what did go unnoticed was that Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem before two previous preseason games – on 14 and 20 August – but he didn’t play so wasn’t in his team uniform as he was on 26 August.

After that date, his protest was no longer silent, and the media wanted answers.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick told NFL Media after the game.

“To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.

Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before their NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016. (Getty)
Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before their NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, 2 October, 2016. (Getty)
Protesters demonstrate in support of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick outside of the San Francisco Police Officers Association offices on August 31, 2016 in San Francisco. (Getty)
Protesters demonstrate in support of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick outside the San Francisco Police Officers Association offices on 31 August, 2016. (Getty)

“There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

“This is not something that I am going to run by anybody. I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed.

“If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”

Kaepernick was accused by many sports and political commentators of disrespecting the national anthem, but he was also lauded for taking a stand against racism.

Kaepernick became a household name across America after his protest in subsequent years - even if his NFL career stalled. (Getty)
Kaepernick became a household name across America after his protest in subsequent years – even if his NFL career stalled. (Getty)

On 1 September, 2016, Kaepernick took the knee before a game for the first time, deciding to kneel rather than sit after talking to Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former NFL player.

Kaepernick was joined in taking the knee by fellow 49er Eric Reid. In the weeks that followed, the pair would continue to kneel during the anthem, along with teammate Eli Harold.

The gesture took days to spread to other sports. On 4 September, US women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe kneeled during the national anthem before a NWSL match between the Seattle Reign and the Chicago Red Stars.

Five years after Kaepernick's first protest, Arsenal players take the knee before their Premier League game against Chelsea on August 22. (Getty)
Five years after Kaepernick's first protest, Arsenal players take the knee before their Premier League game against Chelsea on 22 August. (Getty)

The gesture eventually went global, and was used by many Premier League clubs in the years that followed.

England’s footballers even took the knee before their games in the European Championship this summer.

Home secretary Priti Patel later described taking the knee as "gesture politics", leading England defender Tyrone Mings to respond that she had "stoked the fire".

As for Kaepernick, he hasn’t played in the NFL since the beginning of 2017 and remains a free agent.

In 2018, Nike released an advert featuring Kaepernick with the slogan: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

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