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#ImWithKap: How Colin Kaepernick dominated Super Bowl conversations without taking the field

San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) and quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) kneel during the national anthem before an NFL game against the Los Angeles Rams in September 2016. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Hours before the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams took the field for Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, a hashtag started trending across the country. But it wasn’t related to either of the teams, any of their players or what would be the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history.

On Sunday, tens of thousands of people — including celebrities like rapper Common, athletes like Stephen Curry and prominent activists — flooded social media with posts referencing #ImWithKap, declaring their unwavering support for former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and calling for a boycott of the championship game, citing the NFL’s “racist treatment” of the embattled athlete. Kaepernick has been unable to find a team willing to sign him since he became enveloped in controversy after kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality and social injustice. The 31-year-old, whose actions sparked a polarizing movement that has been harshly rebuked by President Trump, has filed a collusion grievance against the NFL alleging that team owners banded together to blacklist him in the wake of the protests.

In the lead-up to the Super Bowl and during Sunday’s broadcast, Kaepernick and related criticisms of the NFL only fueled an undercurrent of anger that has continued to plague a league that has pitched this season as a comeback after tumultuous years punctuated by public relations blunders and low television ratings, The Washington Post’s Matt Bonesteel reported.

Some potential halftime performers turned down the chance over Kaepernick’s treatment. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was repeatedly pressed about the quarterback’s status during Wednesday’s state-of-the-league address, drawing backlash when he appeared to skirt the questions. When a mural of Kaepernick painted on the side of an abandoned building in Atlanta was demolished just days before the big game, outrage abounded, prompting a movement by local artists to replace it with eight new ones across the city, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

As the Super Bowl neared, those championing Kaepernick only began to get louder. During the weekend, for example, he received support from fellow athletes, such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant, who both wore special jerseys emblazoned with Kaepernick’s number, 7.

On Sunday, tensions surrounding Kaepernick and the NFL appeared to boil over as thousands took to social media, their focus not on the title game but on a player who hasn’t seen the field in two years.

Since Kaepernick launched the protests, the NFL has worked toward a settlement. In November 2017, the league reached an agreement with its players to donate $89 million over a seven-year period to issues such as criminal justice reform, law enforcement and community relations, and education, ESPN reported. About a year later, The Post’s Liz Clarke and Mark Maske reported that kneeling for the anthem “largely receded this year,” with only a “handful of players” continuing to demonstrate. On Sunday, in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation” ahead of the Super Bowl, Trump touted the recent signing of a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that was backed by the NFL, adding that he understood the protests largely stemmed from that particular issue.

“I took care of that,” Trump said.

Despite the developments, Kaepernick’s supporters proudly announced boycotts, promoted his charity and continued to condemn the NFL. When the NFL aired a pregame montage featuring Martin Luther King Jr., and brought his daughter Bernice King, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and civil rights pioneer Andrew Young on the field for the official coin toss, the quarterback’s fans were quick to voice their outrage, slamming the league for “acting like they care about social justice.”

In a lengthy tweet, director Ava DuVernay vowed that she would “not be a spectator, viewer or supporter of the #SuperBowl today” due to the NFL’s “racist treatment” of Kaepernick and “its ongoing disregard for the health + well-being of all its players.”

“To watch the game is to compromise my beliefs,” DuVernay wrote. “It’s not worth it.”

“SAME,” tweeted actress Jodie Turner-Smith in response to DuVernay. The director’s strong stance was also echoed by journalist and author Karen Hunter, actress Rosanna Arquette and many others.

Charles M. Blow, a New York Times op-ed columnist, tweeted that he used to “have a small Super Bowl party every year,” but the tradition was over.

“No more! Not watching anymore,” Blow wrote. “Need to find something black-affirming to do while it’s on.”

Even longtime Los Angeles residents gave up cheering on their home team for Kaepernick.

Other big names joining the chorus of support included rapper Common, actor Nick Cannon, actress Zendaya and singer Janelle Monáe, and athletes such as Curry, Jaylen Brown and Kaepernick’s former teammate Eric Reid.

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New season! Y’all know what to do...

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Kaepernick appeared grateful for the encouraging messages, actively thanking his fans while sharing their photos and videos on his personal Twitter and Instagram accounts.

Less than an hour before kickoff, Chris Lu, former White House Cabinet secretary under President Barack Obama, pointed out that #ImWithKap was trending in the United States with more than 18,300 tweets.

“Because some things are more important than a game,” Lu tweeted.

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