NFL players have never been particularly outspoken. Theirs is a sport that discourages individuality and anything that might challenge the status quo. But now, emboldened by Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest that began last summer, they are becoming increasingly aware of just how much power they have.

Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, did more than just make a personal statement about police brutality and social injustice, he started a national conversation that at times has become a heated debate. It may also have helped awaken players to the power of their own voices.

George Atallah, the assistant executive director of external affairs for the NFL Players Association, made that point Thursday after Kent Babb’s story on Kaepernick was published by The Post. He reminded union members, “Here’s to realizing your full power,” highlighting a quote from an unnamed NFL owner interviewed by Babb. “The thing that he’s done probably more effectively than any team community relations staff or owner or coach could do for other players,” the owner said, “is [point out] that they do have the ability to affect the national dialogue.”

And with that untapped ability comes great power, one that NFL owners have become accustomed to having tilted in their favor over the years. Increased awareness of social injustice and activism are helping players take back the narrative at a critical time as the union and league spar over player discipline and begin to jockey for position ahead of the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement in 2020. “I think that the likelihood of either a strike or a lockout is almost in ’21 a virtual certainty,” DeMaurice Smith, the union’s executive director, told Sports Illustrated recently, a statement that shows how much is at stake for players on so many levels.

Even as the NFLPA urges players to speak up, Kaepernick has chosen to let his actions — and seemingly everyone else who has an opinion — do the talking. He has turned down interview requests, including one from Babb. Whether by his own design or just because of his activism, Kaepernick has come to symbolize much bigger things than football.

His stance is now a heated rallying cry on both sides of the political aisle. His No. 7 49ers jersey is still one of the best-selling in a league that will not have him and a memento to burn by fans who don’t want him. Kaepernick is more than just an athlete these days; he is a symbol and a dramatic example, either the second coming of Muhammad Ali — the legendary boxer who shook up the world and the national conversation by refusing a draft assignment to Vietnam — or a spoiled athlete who refused to stick to sports and oblige a culture that allowed him three years ago to sign a $126 million contract.
He is, on either end of an extreme spectrum, a figure who generates passion and devotion, the author of a movement that has grown larger and more heated than perhaps even Kaepernick thought it would.

Kaepernick, who has moved to New York since leaving the San Francisco 49ers in March, has spent his time fulfilling a pledge to donate $1 million to organizations that fight oppression. On Thursday, he announced to 1.23 million followers on Twitter that he has given away $900,000. Just don’t expect him to be more visible. Babb writes that “he rarely appears in public and has in fact been asked by event organizers to not appear at rallies in his name.”

Clearly, he started something. Or perhaps he is merely the right man, swept along at the right time. It may not matter because something certainly is underway and NFL players are aware that they have a role to play. Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks went public Wednesday with the terrifying story of an incident in which Las Vegas police handcuffed him and pointed guns at him after the Mayweather-McGregor fight last month. “I felt helpless as I lay there on the ground handcuffed facing the real-life threat of being killed,” he wrote in a letter posted on Twitter. “All I could think of was ‘I’m going to die for no other reason than I am black and my skin color is somehow a threat.’”

Bennett fared better than others because “they apparently realized I was not a thug, common criminal or ordinary black man but Michael Bennett, a famous professional football player. After confirming my identity, I was ultimately released without any legitimate justification for the officers’ abusive conduct.”

Against that backdrop, the NFL season is about to open and with it comes the opportunity to use the national anthem protest to take a stance. About a week before his experience in Vegas, Bennett took a stance, saying, “It would take a white player [refusing to stand for the anthem] to really get things changed.” That led to players like Chris Long of the Philadelphia Eagles offering support. Long kept his hand on teammate Malcolm Jenkins’s back as Jenkins raised his fist during the national anthem before a preseason game.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say you need white athletes to get involved in the anthem protests,” Long said. “I’ve said before I’ll never kneel for an anthem, because the flag means something different for everybody in this country, but I support my peers. And if you don’t see why you need allies for people that are fighting for equality right now, I don’t think you’ll ever see it. So my thing is, Malcolm is a leader, and I’m here to show support as a white athlete.”

Not long afterward, a dozen Cleveland Browns players took a knee, saying it was in prayer, and among them was one white player. Seth DeValve, who is married to an African American woman, explained later: “I wanted to take the opportunity with my teammates, during the anthem, to pray for our country, and also to draw attention to the fact that we have work to do.”

And Kaepernick found a very high profile defender last week in Aaron Rodgers, the two-time NFL MVP. Rodgers, in an ESPN interview, said he believes that Kaepernick is not on a roster because of his protests. Rodgers, who plans to continue to stand for the anthem, admitted that he and his teammates have had deep conversations about race and profiling. “I think the best way I can say this is: I don’t understand what it’s like to be in that situation,” he said. “What it is to be pulled over, or profiled, or any number of issues that have happened, that Colin was referencing — or any of my teammates have talked to me about.”

But, he added, “I know it’s a real thing my black teammates have to deal with.”

Because of that, the question isn’t whether the activism will continue, it is, as Atallah hints, how will the power it brings be used?

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