Telling the story of an iconic protest: taking a knee

Photo by Charles Hallman (l-r) Jessie Hagopian, Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin has authored many books, including ones on Muhammad Ali and John Carlos, but his latest book, which includes tons of interviews with athletes of all levels and others across the country, might be his most compelling yet.

“The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World” (The New Press) was released in September. “[Colin] Kaepernick’s simple act spread like wildfire throughout U.S. society, becoming the preeminent symbol of resistance to the United States’ persistent racial inequality,” said the publisher’s press release. The book cover has the iconic photo of the former NFL quarterback, Whiteballed since 2017, on one knee.

Zirin critically examines sports, its intersection of gender, diversity, and how it shapes our society. The famed sportswriter-author-activist’s latest book is for everyone, sports fans and non-sports fans alike, he told us.

He originally conducted interviews prior to the summer of 2020, and after George Floyd’s murder last year, Zirin said he reconnected with the interviewees for updates. The stories are compelling and sometimes heartbreaking as young people across the country took a knee, following Kaepernick’s lead, to protest what’s happening in the U.S.

“The histories are going to get written, and we have to make sure that the people who made history are remembered in history,” declared Zirin. “I saw this book as a mission. My concern was that part of the struggle, mainly young people who took a knee, young athletes were going to get forgotten. “That was my big concern,” he said. “I didn’t want them to get forgotten.

“What if I can center the voices of these true heroes and sheroes who really dared to take that knee and come hell what may,” Zirin continued. “That was the beginning, and then we hit the summer [of 2020] and Derek Chauvin murders George Floyd, and we have the largest protests in the history of the United States. Then I went back and called all the people that I interviewed” for further comments, he said.

During his student years at Macalester (Class of ’96), Zirin said he was influenced by retired school history professor Mahmoud El-Kati, who was in attendance at the author’s Sept. 27 appearance at his alma mater. He and El-Kati reconnected prior to the event.

“I said to Prof. El-Kati he had this transformative effect on my life with his class about the Black athlete in the U.S.,” admitted Zirin to the audience as he briefly paid homage to the professor. 

“I did not take that class because I couldn’t get it and my roommate did take the class. So, I spent the semester reading his books and talking with him about the class and taking in everything he was learning through Professor El-Kati.”

Since graduation, Zirin has put El-Kati’s lessons into practice as he covered sports and activism. He also told the group that he, a Washington D.C. native, became clearly aware of what Minnesota Nice really means.

“Everybody you know smiles and everything’s hunky-dory all the time,” said Zirin. “It’s like that’s sometimes used as way to power over the very real problems that certainly Black and Brown folk have in trying to navigate this overwhelmingly White state.”

On taking a knee, Zirin said, “The act of taking that knee has become so iconic that if I was at a sporting event and the anthem played and I took a knee, everybody would immediately know what I was doing. Every single person in that stadium…whether they loved it or hated it, they would know what I was doing.”