Courage. In pro football, it is said to be a requisite character trait for the most important position on the field. A quarterback does not need to show real-world courage in the face of real-world adversity, of course. Just the courage to stay in there and take a hit.
Colin Kaepernick has shown both in a six-year NFL career that, amazingly enough, might be over. Four years ago, he was tough enough to lead his San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl. Last year he was tough enough to stand tall while taking a seat during a preseason playing of the national anthem.
He ended up on the cover of Time magazine. He also ended up unemployed, even though Kaepernick is better than two-thirds of the 100-plus quarterbacks in training camp. He knew when he protested systemic racism that he might pay this kind of professional price, and he put himself out there anyway.
That's why NFL players who have followed his lead represent the very best of their generation of professional athletes. Active players who are protesting the anthem by sitting (including Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks and Marshawn Lynch of the Oakland Raiders) or by raising a fist (including Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles and Robert Quinn of the Los Angeles Rams) understand there might very well be a financial penalty to pay. They've seen it with their own eyes, as a Kaepernick-free league barrels toward opening day.
And yet they make their powerful statements, the consequences be damned. In the not-too-distant future they could be the next NFL players shunned by owners and executives who don't want to deal with the "distraction," as if speaking for millions of voiceless, disenfranchised Americans qualifies as one.
Remember, Denver linebacker Brandon Marshall took a knee for the anthem last season and then was dumped by two local sponsors. For most NFL players, banking the endorsement money and the seven-figure wages and remaining silent on social issues would be the safe play. Many are volunteering for the tough stuff instead. They're shining a spotlight on everyday inequities that confront black Americans in our economic, educational and justice systems, and they're doing so in a sport governed by white billionaires and a league culture that strongly encourages 24/7 conformity.
Pro football isn't pro basketball, which revolves around megastar franchise players, their guaranteed contracts and their leverage in dictating where they are going to play. LeBron James is the boss in his world, not Dan Gilbert, the Cleveland Cavaliers' owner. And James and Carmelo Anthony, for instance, have the luxury of speaking up in a league that is much friendlier to the activist today than it was to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was suspended in 1996 for refusing to stand for an anthem and flag he believed symbolized racism and ran counter to his Muslim faith.
On the other hand, the NFL is an owner's game, not a player's game, and the Kaepernick freeze-out was the latest reminder that punishment is guaranteed even if the contracts are not. Kaepernick did not break any league rules. He did not disrupt anyone's ability to honor the anthem as he or she desired. When asked by a former long snapper and Army Green Beret, Nate Boyer, to get out of his seat and take a knee for a more respectfully defiant pose, Kaepernick took a knee. He was such a divisive force in the locker room, his teammates voted him the most inspirational and courageous 49er in giving him an award named after running back Len Eshmont, an original 49er in 1946 who became a coach at the University of Virginia and who lived and died young in Charlottesville, the latest ground zero in America's eternal struggle over race.
Bennett said the deadly violence at the Saturday rally attended by white supremacists inspired him to sit with a towel over his head during the anthem before the Seahawks' preseason opener. The son of a military man, Bennett said he merely wants "to see people have the equality that they deserve."
He's hardly alone. NFL players from Charlottesville have given voice to their outrage, including white players Chris and Kyle Long and Houston Texans kicker Nick Novak, who called the hate group's actions "the devil's work." Good for them. And good for the NFL players who continue to honor the spirit of Muhammad Ali and the 1968 Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who knew they were inviting a thunderous storm of opposition the moment they raised their gloved fists from the medal podium in Mexico City.
Jenkins, an Eagles safety, is among the players who have raised their fists as Smith and Carlos did, standing as a persuasive spokesman for the cause. He's the grandson of a Marine and a Korean War veteran, and he suspended his personal protest before the last season's Sept. 11 opener out of respect for the victims of the terrorist attacks. At his locker after a Week 2 victory over Chicago, while explaining his need to rail against a wave of police shootings of unarmed black citizens, Jenkins laid out his core big-picture motive.
"A lot of arguments you hear is, 'Do it on your own time. Do it in a different way,'" Jenkins said. "Well, the truth of the matter is, if you do it in a different way, that just allows you to ignore the issue. When you talk about real change, although a protest in itself doesn't change anything, it forces people to talk about it and tugs on the social conscience of the citizens. So that's the biggest thing, how to get this topic in the minds of all those around the country and make them confront their own beliefs and thoughts and reasonings behind what they support and what they don't."
As self-examination is the road to the faraway ideal of a truly equal society, Jenkins and his fellow protesters are doing a service to the country by inspiring these uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Meanwhile, Jenkins has run a clinic on how to walk the talk. The Eagles safety has traveled to Capitol Hill to talk to congressmen about the ills of police brutality. In a statement last week to ESPN's Tim McManus, Jenkins said he'd joined police officers for ride-alongs and met with state and federal politicians and grass-roots human rights groups, and came away believing "that our criminal justice system is still crippling communities of color through mass incarceration." Jenkins called for prioritized reform, pledged to continue the fight for justice and challenged "those who stay silent to be courageous and use your platforms to become part of the solution."
People who tell the Malcolm Jenkinses of the world to stand at attention, lower their fists and stick to playing football so badly miss the point. A sports arena is an entirely appropriate place to address these issues; that's where many Americans first saw black and white citizens working together in highly functioning units, building chemistry as they pursued a common goal. There's a reason the late Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca always said he thought his teammate Jackie Robinson might have been more important to the cause of civil rights in this country than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "Jackie was there first," Branca would argue.
All these years later, Colin Kaepernick was there first in a league that doesn't suffer rebellion easily. Three teams apparently gave him at least a passing thought this summer, and only one, Seattle, brought him in for a look. The Seahawks ended up taking a pass; the Miami Dolphins ended up pulling Jay Cutler out of a TV booth; and the Baltimore Ravens ended up signing somebody with six career starts, Thad Lewis, who hasn't taken a snap since 2013. Seriously. Now you know why Jenkins told delawareonline.com that NFL owners are "cowards" for punishing Kaepernick for who knows what.
For engaging in a peaceful protest? For feeling a moral obligation to decry oppression? For donating $1 million to community organizations in need? For intending to stand during the anthem in 2017 if a team ever signs him, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter?
For twice beating Aaron Rodgers in the playoffs and coming within one play of a Super Bowl ring, and posting the second-best interception percentage (1.77) in NFL history?
It doesn't really matter. The owners can keep Kaepernick out forever, but the players aren't backing down on this one. If necessary, they are willing to keep taking significant hits for the betterment of others.
In the end, that's the definition of courage. The real-world kind.