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Colin Kaepernick is back in the news. Here’s how black athletes can inspire activism.

Our research found a measurable effect.

From left: San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before their game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Oct. 2, 2016. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

The record-breaking protests across the country prompted by the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and most recently Rayshard Brooks, have put Colin Kaepernick back in the news. During the 2016 football season, when Kaepernick was quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers football team, he knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality against black Americans. The following offseason, his contract was not renewed, and no other team signed him. In 2018, the league banned kneeling on the field during the anthem.

Now, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is saying he encourages teams to sign the quarterback. Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre went even further, comparing Kaepernick’s “hero status” to that of Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals safety who was killed in Afghanistan after giving up his football career to join the Army.

Many black athletes have used the spotlight to protest injustice. Some were not widely noted at the time. For instance, in 1959, high jumper Eroseanna Robinson sat during the anthem at the Pan American games protesting war and injustice. A decade later, at the 1968 Summer Olympics, track star Wyomia Tyus wore all-black shorts, rather than the Team USA uniform, to oppose racial segregation. Others are more well-known. In 1967, champion boxer Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the military after being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, losing his boxing license. During the 1968 Summer Olympics, track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowed their heads and raised their fists during the medal ceremony to protest racial injustice in the United States. After Smith and Carlos were kicked out of Olympic Village, Tyus dedicated her gold medal to them in a show of solidarity.

Do such protests make a difference? Our research suggests that Kaepernick’s protests inspired more African Americans to get politically involved, as we’ll explain below.

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How we did our research

In a recently published article in Perspectives on Politics, we examine original data that we collected as part of the Black Voter Project, a nonpartisan survey research center that explores African American politics through online interviews randomly selected from a national panel. We examine data from a pilot study that consists of 511 standardized online interviews with African Americans in six battleground states — Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, North Carolina and Virginia — as well as California, collected in April 2017. We also draw on data from a national study of 1,545 standardized online interviews with African Americans in November and December 2019. Data for the Black Voter Project are drawn from a probability-based, nationally representative Dynata panel of African American adults.

After controlling for such factors as ideology, partisanship, political knowledge, political trust, and a host of socio-demographic measures, we found that African Americans who strongly approved of Colin Kaepernick’s protest were significantly more likely than those who did not to say they were interested or involved in a number of political activities in the last 12 months, such as signing a petition, boycotting, demonstrating, attending a political meeting or contacting their representatives.

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What’s more, respondents who identified with the Black Lives Matter movement and approved of Kaepernick’s activism were the most likely to say they’d participated in politics in the last year. By accounting for both political knowledge and interest, and past political action sometime in life before 12 months earlier, we concluded attitudes toward Kaepernick’s protest action predicted respondents most recent political action. We conducted augmented regression-tests that confirmed our regression model did not suffer from reverse causality — in other words, that the inclination to protest was motivated by Kaepernick’s activism, rather than the other way around.

Our findings are upheld in nationally representative Black Voter Project data collected in the closing months of 2019. We asked African American respondents if Colin Kaepernick’s protest action ever “inspired” them to participate in politics, and if so, in which ways. At least one-fourth answered that, yes, his activism had “inspired” them to protest, boycott or donate to a political cause, as you can see in the figure below. Over half say Kaepernick’s protest inspired them to vote in a local state or national election.

As seen in the second figure, a far larger proportion of those who say they identify with the Black Lives Matter movement also say they’ve been influenced by Kaepernick’s activism to participate in politics.

Black athletes as social movement influencers

Our research suggests Kaepernick’s activism is motivating African Americans to either get engaged or remain involved in political activities, and has helped sustain a national movement aimed at undoing racial injustice.

Obama is right. The Floyd protests will change public policy.

Former president Barack Obama believes that this moment of civil unrest could push the nation to overhaul its criminal justice system. History suggests long-term, systemic change requires prolonged protests. And, just as the current protests continue to encounter opposition, Kaepernick will too, such as the recent critique from former New York Jets safety Burgess Owen, a black Republican running for Congress in Utah.

Kaepernick, however, continues to advance his campaign and recently joined Medium’s board of directors to write stories “focused on race and civil rights in America.” A number of black athletes are also getting involved in similar efforts. For instance, WNBA stars Renee Montgomery, Jonquel Jones and Natasha Cloud all announced they would step away for the 2020 season to work on social justice issues. Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray and Washington Redskins running back Adrian Peterson are among the NFL players pledging to take a knee before every game this season in solidarity with Kaepernick. And a number of black athletes, such as former NBA player Stephen Jackson, tennis star Coco Gauff and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, have taken leading movement roles. If prolonged protests are ultimately needed for long-term, systemic change, our research implies that the activism of athletes can inspire others into action.

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Christopher C. Towler (@blkprofcct) is an assistant professor of political science at Sacramento State University, senior policy adviser for the California Policy and Research Initiative and director of the Black Voter Project.

Nyron N. Crawford (@NyronNCrawford) is assistant professor of political science at Temple University, and a visiting associate research scholar at Princeton University.

Robert A. Bennett III (@RB3PhD) is an assistant professor at Denison University, and a faculty fellow at the Heman Sweatt Center for Black Males at the University of Texas at Austin.