With dozens of players per game kneeling for the national anthem and far more fans protesting and even boycotting the NFL over these acts of protest, it’s likely you’ve heard of the “Take a Knee Movement,” whether you’re a sports fan or not. The phrase “Take a Knee” itself has become a way to express solidarity against racial injustice. However, this movement has more of a history to it than Colin Kaepernick waking up one day and deciding he wanted to kneel for the anthem. The history of the take a knee movement actually goes back some time and, whether you agree with what he is doing or not, it is clear that Mr. Kaepernick did his homework before choosing how to protest.
Historical Use of Take a Knee
The Dictionary of American Slang dates the expression “take a knee” back to the 1990s, but a deep dive into football history will show instances of its use even earlier. In fact, some believe that the phrase and its meaning developed in football even before they became widely used in the military.
One of the earliest instances can be found in the records of a 1960 University of South Carolina Gamecocks game. During halftime of a Varsity-Alumni game, one of the Alumni players, Albert “King” Dixon Jr., paid tribute to Rex Enright, a longtime coach and athletic director who had died the month before. With two minutes left before they had to go back on the field, King stood up and said, “Some of us talked about this before the game. We all played for him. We all loved him. Now he’s gone. So let’s all take a knee for a moment of silence for our Rex Enright.” In this instance, kneeling was used to remember and pay homage to a loved coach. Most other references to players taking a knee in football history relate to taking a knee to rest or to listen to coaches, or to downing the ball.
Outside of football, kneeling has been used as a form of respectful protest, as well as to just show respect, throughout history. After one game where players kneeled for the anthem, Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest daughter, Bernice, tweeted out a picture of the Civil Rights leader and others taking a knee before being arrested for advocating for voter registration rights at the Dallas County courthouse in Selma in 1965.
Former US Attorney General Eric Holder posted a similar picture of Kingfrom that same protest, saying, “Those who dared protest have helped bring about positive change.”
It was also not uncommon for sports players to stay seated in protest during the Vietnam era.
Colin Kaepernick Begins His Protest
On August 14th and 20th, 2016, Colin Kaepernick stayed seated during the national anthem. Nobody noticed. Then, on August 26th, Jennifer Lee Chan of Niners Nation tweeted out a photo of the anthem, entirely unrelated to Kaepernick or his protest. However, fans noticed him sitting and word spread quickly. Later that night and the 49ers released a statement confirming Kaepernick sat for the anthem. He gave a brief explanation at the time, stating that he sat because of the oppression of people of color and ongoing issues with police brutality.
Two days later, on August 28, he spoke out to the media and expounded on this statement, stating, “I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.”
“This stand wasn’t for me. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.”
“It’s something that can unify this team. It’s something that can unify this country. If we have these real conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people. If we have these conversations, there’s a better understanding of where both sides are coming from.”
“I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening. I’ve seen videos, I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they fought have for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.”
During these events, former Green Beret and brief NFL long snapper Nate Boyer reached out to Kaepernick. “When I saw that, I felt like I was betrayed. It just hurt. It was extremely disgraceful for me. In my eyes you might as well burn the flag,” he said of seeing Kaepernick sitting. “That was my initial reaction before I stopped and thought: ‘What is he so upset about that he would want to protest the symbol of what our country stands for – which is freedom of rights?'” Boyer wrote an open letter to Kaepernick on the issue, and they decided to meet to discuss their respective opinions.
“I wanted him to stand – but I wanted him to stand because he feels like we are going in the right direction, like things are changing,” Boyer says of their meeting. “I wanted him to understand the implications of what he was doing, and he listened. That was important, because we are at a time when people just shake their fists instead of trying to fix something together. We reached a position of consensus.”
Boyer suggested that Kaepernick kneel, rather than sit. He was receptive to Boyer’s concerns, but still wanted to protest. Kaepernick stated, “We were talking to [Boyer] about how can we get the message back on track and not take away from the military, not take away from fighting for our country, but keep the focus on what the issues really are. And as we talked about it, we came up with taking a knee. Because there are issues that still need to be addressed and it was also a way to show more respect to the men and women who fight for this country.”
Boyer was impressed by Kaepernick’s willingness to listen and compromise, stating, “It took courage for him to sit initially. It took more courage to bend his position a little bit. I told him if they knelt I would be next to them with my hand on my heart, because I support your right to peacefully protest in this country. That is what I fought for.”
A Timeline of the Growing Movement
The next game, Kaepernick kneeled rather than sat, but he was not alone. From then on, the movement has grown exponentially. More and more players have joined throughout the seasons, and the NFL even faced a proposal to require players to stand, which was eventually rejected. Kaepernick still faces immense scrutiny, and fans have boycotted everything from NFL games and paraphernalia to Nike, who Kaepernick recently did a commercial for.
Sept. 1, 2016
- Kaepernick is joined by Eric Reid, who would kneel the remainder of the season.
- Seahawks CB Jeremy Lane sits during the national anthem.
Sept. 4, 2016
- Megan Rapinoe of the National Women’s Soccer League kneels during the national anthem.
Sept. 8, 2016
- Broncos LB Brandon Marshall takes a knee during NFL season opener.
Sept. 11, 2016
- Four Dolphins, Arian Foster, Michael Thomas, Kenny Stills, and Jelani Jenkins take a knee during the national anthem. Jenkins stands for the rest of the season, while the other three remain kneeling.
- Chiefs CB Marcus Peters raises a fist during the national anthem.
- Patriots TE Martellus Bennett and DB Devin McCourty raise fists after the national anthem.
Sept. 12, 2016
- 49ers LB Eli Harold and S Antoine Bethea stand with fists raised in the air.
- Rams DE Robert Quinn and WR Kenny Britt stand for anthem with fists in the air.
Sept. 18, 2016
- 49ers S Jaquiski Tartt and CB Rashard Robinson join Bethea and Harold in raising fists during the anthem. Harold later joined Kaepernick on a knee, while Tartt and Bethea stopped raising a fist in November.
Sept. 19, 2016
- Eagles S Malcolm Jenkins, DE Steven Means, CB Ron Brooks, and DE Marcus Smith raise a fist during the national anthem (Jenkins and Brooks did so during the duration of the season).
Sept. 22, 2016
- Texans OT Duane Brown raises a fist during the national anthem.
Aug. 12, 2017
- Raiders RB Marshawn Lynch sits for anthem after coming out of retirement.
Aug. 13, 2017
- Seahawks DE Michael Bennett sits during the national anthem (announced he would sit all season).
Week 3 of the 2017 Season
- Trump says NFL owners need to fire the “sons of bitches” who “disrespected the flag.”
Sept. 24, 2017
- Jaguars and Ravens players kneel in London. A total of 14 players for the Jaguars kneeled, and at least a dozen kneeled on the Ravens sideline.
- A total of 32 Denver Broncos players kneel during the anthem. Two stood with raised fists
- At least eight Bills players kneel while linking arms. RB LeSean McCoy ignores the anthem altogether and continued to stretch while it played.
- At least 20 Browns players kneel during the anthem while linking arms.
- A total of 18 Patriots players kneel during the anthem while linking arms.
- Eagles S Malcolm Jenkins, WR Torrey Smith, and WR Marcus Johnson raise fists during the anthem.
- Falcons DTs Grady Jarrett and Dontari Poe kneel during the anthem.
- A total of eight Lions players kneel during the anthem.
- Saints WR Brandon Coleman, Titans WR Rishard Matthews, and Giants WR Odell Beckham Jr. raise fists after touchdowns.
- Packers TE Martellus Bennett, CB Kevin King, and TE Lance Kendricks sit during the anthem. Four days later all three stand for a Thursday Night Football game.
- Six Chargers players kneel or sit during the anthem.
- Chiefs TE Travis Kelce takes a knee during the anthem, the most prominent white player to do so. Other Chiefs players sit during the anthem and CB Marcus Peters raises a fist.
- Bengals DE Chris Smith raises a fist after a sack vs. Green Bay.
- Seven Washington players kneel during the anthem, including WRs Jamison Crowder and Josh Doctson.
- Nearly the entire Oakland Raiders team links arms and sits during the anthem.
- At least 10 Colts players kneel.
This list ends quite some time ago. The movement continues to gain momentum each week. Both sides of the argument have large and avid followings. Whichever side you’re on, one thing is for sure – Colin Kaepernick achieved his goal of bringing awareness to his cause.
- A brief history of “taking a knee” – Language Log
- Everything you need to know about NFL protests during the national anthem – SBNation
- A timeline of Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest and the athletes who joined him – SBNation
- Colin Kaepernick: From one man kneeling to a movement dividing a country – BBC
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