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The NFL couldn’t keep Colin Kaepernick off the field

(Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

“One day, maybe my youngest, who is in second grade, is going to open up a history book and he’ll read about Colin,” Phil Sanchez, Colin Kaepernick’s high school guidance counselor, told Kent Babb this summer. “And it won’t have anything to do with throwing a touchdown.”

The notion of Kaepernick as an American historical figure was cemented this weekend. Among NFL players, the preferred method of protest — taking a knee — and the impetus to use the national anthem as a platform for expression traces back to Kaepernick. It was a momentous weekend, and it was shaped primarily by someone who wasn’t there. NFL teams may not have signed him to play quarterback this season, but they could not keep Kaepernick off the field.

Donald Trump prompted mass player protests during the national anthem with his caustic remarks Friday night and tweets all day Saturday. He left players with little choice but to respond, and many players took their cues from Kaepernick.

Players from several NFL teams protested President Trump’s recent comments before and during the national anthem on game day Sunday. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

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Last summer, Kaepernick sat on the bench during the national anthem before a San Francisco 49ers preseason game. Nobody seemed to notice until he did it again, and then again. He explained to observant reporter Steve Wyche that he could not stand and salute a flag that represented a country where inequality and police brutality existed. He sat in the aftermath of the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana. A Green Beret and former collegiate long snapper, Nate Boyer, reached out to Kaepernick and explained kneeling would be a more respectful form of protest, and so Kaepernick started to kneel. It has become a defining pose for NFL players, an act the country will remember years from now more than any pass, run or tackle this season.

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When Kaepernick first knelt, teammate and 49ers safety Eric Reid joined him. “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture,” Reid wrote Monday in a New York Times op-ed. “I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.” Reid still has a job in the NFL. Kaepernick became a symbol because he was first, and he does not.

“I can’t find words that appropriately express how heartbroken I am to see the constant smears against Colin, a person who helped start the movement with only the very best of intentions,” Reid went on to write. “We are talking about a man who helped to orchestrate a commercial planeful of food and supplies for famine-stricken Somalia. A man who has invested his time and money into needy communities here at home. A man I am proud to call my brother, who should be celebrated for his courage to seek change on important issues. Instead, to this day, he is unemployed and portrayed as a radical un-American who wants to divide our country.

Anybody who has a basic knowledge of football knows that his unemployment has nothing to do with his performance on the field. It’s a shame that the league has turned its back on a man who has done only good. I am aware that my involvement in this movement means that my career may face the same outcome as Colin’s. But to quote the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” And I choose not to betray those who are being oppressed.”

What protests looked like on every NFL sideline

Kaepernick created, among his peers, a way of thinking that took on a life of its own and infiltrated even a staunchly conservative league. The majority of NFL owners responded to Trump’s comments about player protests, which started with Kaepernick, by criticizing Trump. Many of them demonstrated alongside players.

U.S. athletes have a long history of protesting during the national anthem. Here is how some competitors have used their platform to protest. (Video: Taylor Turner, Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

The suddenness and vastness of the shift cannot be overstated. A couple of weeks ago, NFL owners just wanted protests to go away, lest they interfere with fan experience and, therefore, profit. “I’d like to believe that once the season starts for real and you’re not in preseason that it’ll sort of fade away because it won’t have the novelty of last year,” one member of an NFL ownership group said this summer. Billionaires tend not to change the behaviors and attitudes that made them billionaires. But there was Jerry Jones — Jerry Jones — locking arms with his players and kneeling before the playing of the anthem.

“Colin Kaepernick is this era’s, this Fourth Wave of athlete activism’s Muhammad Ali,” University of Cal-Berkeley sociology professor Harry Edwards wrote in an email last week. “And now, as was the case with Ali’s banishment from boxing, the MOVEMENT has expanded far, far beyond both the issue of Kaep taking a Knee and, most significantly, the capacity, much less the ability, of the NFL ‘[powers] that be’ to manage the situation.”

“If they take football away, I know that I stood for what is right,” Kaepernick told the NFL Network in August 2016. The owners who took football away from Kaepernick have not given it back to him, but this weekend they did something history will remember. They emulated him.

>>> Alejandro Villanueva clarified what happened when he stood alone Sunday, as Sean Gentille reports. “Every single time I see that picture of me standing by myself, I feel embarrassed,” Villanueva said. “We butchered our plan.” Villanueva’s entire comments are well worth reading in full. He is a veteran, a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan, who says kneeling during the anthem is not disrespectful to veterans.

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>>> The Cowboys stabilized their season in Arizona. Coming off the ugliest loss of quarterback Dak Prescott’s career, Dallas dealt with issues that threatened to rattle their season. Ezekiel Elliot loafed; Jason Garrett publicly chastised Prescott’s play; the debate over how to handle the anthem was especially charged. After falling behind, 7-0, instantly, the Cowboys roared back and won, 28-17, on Monday night.

Two plays typified the Cowboys’ gutsy performance. Prescott scored a touchdown after keeping the ball on a read-option and flipping over two defenders while getting blasted by another. Dez Bryant scored another by catching a short pass and plowing through multiple Cardinals tacklers, ultimately pushing into the end zone with help from blockers rushing downfield.

Clearance Hill Jr. writes the game might be “remembered as the tipping point for the Dallas Cowboys coming together on and off the field.”

>> Darren Sproles is out for the season and might done for his career, Zach Berman writes. Sproles, a dynamo running back and returner for the Philadelphia Eagles in his 13th season, broke his forearm and tore his anterior cruciate ligament on the same play. Wendell Smallwood will likely take over Sproles’s duties as the third-down back. The Eagles got better news on Fletcher Cox and Jordan Hicks, two of their best defensive players, both of whom left Sunday’s win with injuries. Coach Doug Pederson called them “day-to-day.”

>> The Seahawks are consistently the most open and most fascinating study of team dynamics in the league. Safety Kam Chancellor publicly called for his teammates to “stop bickering” with other teams so much after the Seahawks lost to the Titans, 33-27, as Brady Henderson writes.

Read more:

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Trump achieved the unthinkable: NFL players united on issues with Roger Goodell, owners

Before Alejandro Villanueva stood alone, he discussed Colin Kaepernick at training camp

Barry Svrluga: What’s next in the Trump-NFL feud? Newly empowered players will provide answer.

Jerry Brewer: The NFL beat Trump. Soundly.

‘I certainly disagree with what he said’: Tom Brady finally takes issue with Trump

Steelers’ Roethlisberger, Villanueva regret team’s anthem protest, but for different reasons

The making of Colin Kaepernick

From Kaepernick sitting to Trump’s fiery comments: NFL’s anthem protests have spurred discussion