Former NFL football quarterback Colin Kaepernick steps on stage at the start of W.E.B. Du Bois Medal ceremonies at Harvard University on Thursday. (Steven Senne/Associated Press)

Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick made a plea for communal sacrifice in pursuit of racial and economic equality while being honored with Harvard’s top honor for African American studies Thursday evening.

“If we all believe in something, we won’t have to sacrifice everything,” Kaepernick said, referring to his recent Nike campaign and its slogan: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

The Nike slogan was a reference to Kaepernick’s career, which his advocates believe has been interrupted because of his kneeling protests during the playing of the national anthem. Media members were asked not to record or broadcast his brief remarks after accepting the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. At least one television reporter published a transcript of the remarks, which closed with a reflection on the NFL movement he sparked.

“In thinking about the initiation of this protest, this stance, and where we’re at currently, I go back to something I said in a speech previously,” Kaepernick said. “That love is at the root of our resistance, and it will continue to be, and it will fortify everything that we do.”

Kaepernick also warned that people in positions of privilege and power become “complicit” if they don’t fight for underserved and disadvantaged youths. He recalled economically disadvantaged high school football players he met, who protested during the national anthem before their games.

“I feel like it’s not only my responsibility but all our responsibilities as people that are in positions of privilege, positions of power, to continue to fight for them and uplift them, empower them,” he said. “Because if we don’t, we become complicit in the problem.”

Kaepernick began silently sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem during the 2016 NFL season to protest police brutality and social injustice. He has been a free agent for 19 months and has a pending lawsuit against the league, alleging team owners colluded to keep him off the field.

He shared the stage Thursday with seven other Du Bois Medal honorees, including comedian Dave Chappelle, artist Kehinde Wiley (who painted the official portrait of former president Barack Obama) and Equal Justice Initiative founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson.

Previous medalists include Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey and civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). The honor is for national and international figures “in recognition of their contributions to African and African American culture and the life of the mind.”


Comedian Dave Chappelle and Colin Kaepernick. (Steven Senne/AP)

Kaepernick was presented the medal at Thursday’s ceremony after the other honorees, and following a rousing introduction from Harvard philosophy professor and civil rights leader Cornel West. West called the ex-quarterback, who was greeted with a minutes-long ovation, “the real thing,” and said he wanted not simply to be successful, but to be great.

Kaepernick said he had prepared written remarks for the occasion, but they “didn’t seem true” to the “authenticity and the passion and the inspiration that’s in this room.”

Instead, he shared the story of that football team from Castlemont High School in Oakland, Calif., who said in the locker room, “We don’t get to eat at home, so we’re going to eat on this field.”

“That moment has never left me,” Kaepernick said. “And I’ve carried that everywhere I went. And I think that’s the reality of what I fought for, what so many of us have fought for. People live with this every single day. And we expect them to thrive in situations where they’re just trying to survive."

Here is a full transcript of Kaepernick’s remarks:

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