For risking a lucrative athletic career in his prime by staging protests against injustice, Colin Kaepernick has often been compared to Muhammad Ali. Thus, in giving the former 49ers quarterback an annual award named in honor of the boxing icon, Sports Illustrated declared that “no winner has been more fitting than Kaepernick.”
In an essay, Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg wrote, “In the last 16 months, Kaepernick’s truth has been twisted, distorted and used for political gain. It has cost him at least a year of his NFL career and the income that should have come with it. But still, it is his truth. He has not wavered from it. He does not regret speaking it. He has caused millions of people to examine it. And, quietly, he has donated nearly a million dollars to support it.”
Previous recipients of the award, which is given in association with the Ali family and which SI said honors “a figure who embodies the ideals of sportsmanship, leadership and philanthropy and has used sports as a platform for changing the world,” include Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, Jack Nicklaus and Magic Johnson. In typical fashion, Kaepernick, who rarely speaks to the media, issued no public comment on the award but, also in typical fashion, he used social media to indicate he was pleased with the honor.
As SI noted, Kaepernick’s protests, which have changed the NFL and sparked an ongoing national conversation as well as harsh criticism from President Trump and many others, began in August 2016. That’s when he first refused to stand for the national anthem, subsequently explaining that he was protesting racial injustice and, in particular, police killings of unarmed black men.
His protests, in which he first sat on San Francisco’s bench and then took a knee after a conversation with former Green Beret and NFL player Nate Boyer, caught on with several other football players and athletes in other sports. The NFL has found itself grappling all year with the issue of how to deal with the protests even as Kaepernick has been out of the league since March, when he became a free agent and found no takers for a then-29-year-old quarterback with an impressive on-field résumé.
While Kaepernick has filed a grievance against the NFL, accusing team owners of colluding to keep him off their rosters, the league has recently struck a deal with player representatives to provide approximately $90 million toward their community-oriented initiatives. However, some players, including 49ers safety Eric Reid, who is close to his former teammate Kaepernick, have criticized the process of reaching that tentative agreement, meaning it may not accomplish the NFL’s goal of ending the anthem protests.
It has become increasingly apparent that Kaepernick will almost certainly never play football again, generating comparisons to the three-plus years Ali spent out of boxing after refusing to be drafted into military service during the Vietnam War. SI renamed its Legacy award, which it began bestowing in 2008, in honor of Ali in 2015, not long before he died last year.
Lonnie Ali, his widow, said in a statement published by SI, “I am proud to be able to present this to Colin for his passionate defense of social justice and civil rights for all people. Like Muhammad, Colin is a man who stands on his convictions with confidence and courage, undaunted by the personal sacrifices he has had to make to have his message heard. And he has used his celebrity and philanthropy to the benefit of some of our most vulnerable community members.”
Earlier this month, Kaepernick was named GQ magazine’s “Citizen of the Year.” The quarterback’s “determined stand puts him in rare company in sports history: Muhammad Ali, Jackie Robinson — athletes who risked everything to make a difference,” the magazine said.
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