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A timeline of Colin Kaepernick’s protests against police brutality, four years after they began

Colin Kaepernick gestures to fans following his NFL workout in Georgia in November. (Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Four years ago, Colin Kaepernick began sending a message about police brutality and social injustice by refusing to stand for the national anthem before NFL games.

His act continues to reverberate. In May, the message took the form of protests that raged across the country over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.

As the sports calendar was rebooted, athletes made gestures calling attention to racial inequality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., has caused the conversation and protests to flare again.

“Just watching the Republican convention, and they’re spewing this fear,” Los Angeles Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said Tuesday night after an NBA playoff game. “All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear. We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones who were denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. All you keep doing is hearing about fear. It’s amazing why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back.”

Here’s a timeline of Kaepernick’s protest and what has happened since.

Who was Kaepernick in 2016?

A second-round draft pick (36th overall) by the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, Kaepernick led the team to Super Bowl XLVII after the 2012 season and to the NFC championship game after the next season, becoming one of the NFL’s most exciting young stars. But after a couple of years with mixed results, he began the 2016 season as Blaine Gabbert’s backup at +quarterback.

When did Kaepernick begin protesting during the national anthem?

Few noticed the first protest by Kaepernick, on. Aug. 14, 2016, because it came before a preseason game in which he was not in uniform. He remained seated on the bench, out of uniform, for the second game as well, on Aug. 20. Kaepernick’s gesture was first noticed before the third game, on Aug. 26. After the game, he addressed his protest to members of the media for the first time, saying: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

There had been several shootings of unarmed black men that summer, and Kaepernick acknowledged his actions could have consequences. “If they take football away, my endorsements from me,” he said, “I know that I stood up for what is right.”

When did people start paying attention?

Kaepernick’s took a knee during the anthem before the final exhibition, on Sept. 1, 2016, in San Diego, with teammate Eric Reid joining him in protest. Kaepernick went from sitting to kneeling after a conversation with Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret and NFL player. “We sort of came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates,” Boyer told HBO’s “Real Sports.” “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect.”

Kaepernick was booed throughout the game by Chargers fans and his protest began to gain national attention. He also announced that he would donate $1 million of his $11.9 million salary to charities. “Once again, I’m not anti-American,” Kaepernick said. “I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better.”

What was the initial reaction?

By the start of the 2016 season, Kaepernick had the top-selling jersey among NFL players, and the story was becoming national news. On Sept. 5, 2016, President Obama defended Kaepernick, saying “he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told the Associated Press, “I don’t necessarily agree with what he’s doing.” The first week of the regular season included other players taking a knee or raising a fist during the anthem.

How did Kaepernick’s time with the 49ers end?

Kaepernick protested throughout the 2016 season, and he started 11 games as the 49ers finished 2-14. He opted out of his contract after the season and, with a number of mediocre quarterbacks landing with other teams, suspicions grew that he was being blackballed by NFL owners, who presumably didn’t want the attention that signing him would bring. He has not played professionally since the 49ers’ final game of that season, on Jan. 1, 2017.

How did the story explode into a national debate?

Kaepernick was out of the NFL during the 2017 season, but protests and demonstrations reached a peak in the third week of play, fueled in part by outrage from President Trump’s call for owners to get any “son of a bitch” who didn’t stand for the anthem off the field. Players skipped the anthem altogether or continued to protest, with some joining arms on the sideline. The Dallas Cowboys, joined by owner Jerry Jones, took a knee before the anthem was played at a Monday night game but rose for the anthem itself. Before an October 2017 Indianapolis Colts game, Trump instructed Vice President Pence, Indiana’s former governor, to walk out if any players protested during the anthem, and he did so.

In response to claims they were targeting the military, players took pains to clarify their message and pointed out they were trying to raise awareness of police brutality and social injustice.

Was Kaepernick content to move on from football?

In the summer of 2017, there were reports that the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants were interested in Kaepernick but backed off after hearing from some fans. The quarterback maintained all along that he wanted to play, and on Oct. 15, 2017, he filed a grievance against the NFL, accusing its 32 teams of colluding to keep him out of the league.

Colin Kaepernick had a quiet ally in Roger Goodell, but his NFL tryout still unraveled

Did the NFL take action to respond to player protests?

During the 2017 season, the NFL and the Players Coalition reached an agreement for the league to provide financial support to players’ community activism endeavors. In the spring of 2018, NFL owners, players and executives met to discuss the protests, and an audio recording revealed players questioned why Kaepernick remained unsigned.

By mid-May, owners ruled that players could no longer kneel during the anthem without being subject to punishment but allowed that they could remain in the locker room during the anthem. Trump reacted favorably but said that if a player didn’t stand for the anthem, “maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.” The NFL Players Association filed a grievance over the policy in July and, after owners and the union agreed to put the policy on hold, players focused their efforts elsewhere.

How did Kaepernick’s grievance turn out?

On Aug. 30, 2018, arbitrator Stephen B. Burbank said Kaepernick’s lawyers had enough information for the case to proceed to a full hearing, marking an early win for the quarterback. In February 2019, Kaepernick and the NFL reached a settlement (as did Reid, who had similarly alleged collusion), with both sides signing a confidentiality agreement.

What happened next?

Kaepernick had transcended football by the start of the 2019 season. He became the face and voice of a Nike ad campaign that drew both praise and criticism. He continued to have a role in shaping Nike’s decisions; the company dropped plans to produce a sneaker with a 13-star flag known as the Betsy Ross, in part because Kaepernick had privately criticized its use by racist groups. In an award-winning Nike ad called “Dream Crazy,” Kaepernick said, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Is Kaepernick’s football career over?

Kaepernick, 32, was invited to work out for NFL teams at the Atlanta Falcons’ training facility in November 2019. There were disputes over which teams would attend and a waiver the league asked Kaepernick to sign, and he ended up moving the workout to a high school more than an hour away. Eight scouts attended and, although Kaepernick said he had “been ready for three years,” he received no job offers.

“I’ve been denied for three years. We all know why. I came out here and showed it today in front of everybody. We have nothing to hide,” Kaepernick said. “So we’re waiting for the 32 owners, the 32 teams, Roger Goodell, all of them to stop running — stop running from the truth, stop running from the people.”

What did Kaepernick say following Floyd’s death?

As the circumstances of Floyd’s death became known, Kaepernick tweeted in response. “When civility leads to death, revolting is the only logical reaction,” he wrote. “The cries for peace will rain down, and when they do, they will land on deaf ears, because your violence has brought this resistance. We have the right to fight back! Rest in Power George Floyd.” Kaepernick also started a legal-defense fund for protesters in Minneapolis.

What is the NFL’s stance?

In early June, Goodell filmed a video in which he said the league was “wrong in silencing our players for peacefully protesting” police brutality and social injustice during the anthem. That extraordinary admission was spurred by a video featuring the league’s young stars, including Patrick Mahomes, but absent from Goodell’s statement was an apology to or a mention of Kaepernick.

In late August, Goodell, in an interview with former linebacker Emmanuel Acho, said was asked what he’d say to Kaepernick, if given the chance. “The first thing I’d say is I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to. We invited him in several times to have the conversation, to have the dialogue. I wish we had the benefit of that. We never did. We would have benefited from that. Absolutely.”

Goodell added, “We have never disciplined a single player for anything with the national anthem and in violation. And I don’t intend to. And I will support them.”