Congress had convened hearings investigating whether Russia had interfered with last November’s election, President Donald Trump was back in his comfort zone: on the road, flexing his unpredictable, kitchen-sink approach to working a crowd, rallying his supporters against a bizarre albeit easy target. In this case: Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback. Last season, Kaepernick transcended his station as a backup on a bad team when he began kneeling during the national anthem—his way of drawing attention to issues of police brutality and inequality.
Trump never named Kaepernick, instead referring to him as “your San Francisco quarterback . . . I’m sure nobody ever heard of him.” He referred to an article about how “N.F.L. owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump. You believe that?” It’s unclear whether Kaepernick realized any of this as it was happening. He has been preoccupied with an online organizing effort to get clean water to drought-afflicted Somalia. As if by reply, Kaepernick donated fifty thousand dollars to Meals on Wheels on Tuesday.
That Kaepernick seemed an unlikely activist gave last season’s protest a particular gravity. He was a quirky player known for his daring, occasionally reckless approach to playing quarterback. But up until that point, he was more likely to draw attention for his touchdown celebrations (a bicep kiss), or for wearing an opposing team’s cap (it matched his outfit), than for his politics. At first, nobody noticed that he was kneeling in protest at all, given the teeming chaos of N.F.L. sidelines. But once pressed, he spoke with the clear-eyed conviction of someone who had discovered a new purpose. He donated significant chunks of his salary to progressive causes, and he began working with the activist Shaun King and the sociologist Harry Edwards on building institutions that might outlast his playing career. Last fall, a local artist painted a mural of Kaepernick in Oakland—hostile territory for the 49ers. “We got your back,” it read. Teammates, other N.F.L. players, and athletes in other sports, from the standout American soccer player Megan Rapinoe to countless high-school students, joined him in kneeling.