How the ‘Kaepernick Effect’ inspired a new generation

MGN Colin Kaepernick

Macalester College alums Dave Zirin (Class of ’96) and Jessie Hagopian (Class of ’01) returned to campus last week and discussed the politics of athletics and education. Zirin’s latest book, “The Kaepernick Effort: Taking a Knee, Changing the World” (The New Press), was released in September. 

Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016 to call attention to racism and police brutality, but since then the now-former NFL quarterback has been virtually banned from pro ball as a result.  “I don’t think Colin Kaepernick at all had some master plan to do this,” said Zirin. 

A longtime sports editor of The Nation, Zirin is also a columnist for The Progressive and host of his “Edge of Sports” podcast. Zirin’s many books include “A People’s History of Sports in the United States,” “Game Over” and “Bad Sports.”

For anyone, especially athletes, taking a knee is a sign of respect. It isn’t unlawful, but since 2016, kneeling on one knee during the U.S. national anthem at sporting events has become for Black folk a clarion call on this country’s historical and present-day inequalities. However, for most non-Blacks it has been twisted totally into something else.  

According to Zirin, Kaepernick helped spark a new generation of young people clamoring for systemic change. “Colin Kaepernick’s great contributions in the struggle is that he will create a [protest] method to a generation of young athlete activists,” stressed Zirin. “He’s basically showed them that if you take a knee during the national anthem, you’re going to start a lot of conversations, and you’re going to upset all the right people.”

Hagopian, a Seattle high school teacher for over a decade, is the recipient of the 2019 Racial Justice Teacher of the Year from the NAACP Youth Coalition and the Social Justice Teacher of the Year from Seattle Public School’s Department of Racial Equity. He and fellow teachers helped lead an achievement test boycott in Seattle schools and wrote about it in “Voices of a People’s History of the United States”.

He also is an advocate for the power of sports in youth development, and his students are among the many young people and others interviewed for Zirin’s book.  

Photo by Jack Gordon Dave Zirin

“Garfield High School became the first high school in the country where every single football player took a knee. Then all of the cheerleaders took a knee along with the entire marching band,” Hagopian recalled. “Then it spread to the girls’ volleyball team, and the entire [school’s] teams took a knee.”

Hagopian said the anthem is more a tribute to White supremacy and institutional racism in the United States, which he calls “the boundless satire.”  

“I absolutely believe that the public school system is part of reproducing White supremacy,” he pointed out. “I think every institution in America plays a role in helping to reproduce institutional racism.  I think sports have their role.”

“Some kids were kicked off teams. Some kids had garbage thrown at them,” said Zirin of the recollections he got from around the country. “All they’re doing is peaceful, the act of civil disobedience against police violence and racial inequity. That’s a story I got to tell because I was concerned that all these young people were part of the struggle, [but] we live in a culture that writes ordinary people out of history.” 

Members of the Minneapolis North High School football team also were featured in the book.

Like the fist raised in the air during the 1960s, taking a knee today would rightfully join it in the nonviolent protest hall of fame if such a place existed.

An attendee at last week’s event at Macalester asked why the national anthem must be played at games. “It integrates the anthem and all sorts of patriotic whatnot,” answered Zirin. 

“The national anthem was written in 1814 by slave owners. It’s a war song, and there’s a third verse we do not see that’s super racist.” The anthem didn’t become ritualistic until after World War II “because of the onset of the Cold War,” he explained of its pre-game custom.   

“It was just incredible to see my Black students be transformed through these protests,” said Hagopian.

Afterward Hagopian predicted that despite all that has happened in the country since George Floyd’s murder in 2020, “The reckoning is still to come. And when we tear down the structures of instructional racism, people will know that the uprising of 2020 was launched in that struggle.”