What Kaepernick Started

Seeing all of the venom spewed at NFL player Colin Kaepernick takes me back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Today, even Republicans admit that there were no weapons of mass destruction, no direct connection to 9/11, and no reason to invade Iraq. But back in 2003 it was thought to be anti-American, even treasonous, to speak out against the Iraq invasion. I was playing for the Washington Wizards in the nation's capital and simply couldn't keep quiet about what I saw as blatant disrespect to our troops—sending them to die because of deliberate lies perpetuated by then-President George W. Bush. I began reciting my poems at rallies and marches around Washington, D.C. Sometimes thirty or forty people came. At other times, hundreds or even thousands showed up. I delivered each poem with the same tenacity no matter the size of the crowd. Here is an excerpt from one of my poems, titled “Bring Our Heroes Home”:

Out of the ashes of Iraq come soldiers dressed in fatigues of fire wearing helmets secured in smoke
They've choked off the lies spewed out of the mouth of a burning bush
The true warrior's existing wake
Who's flames burned them at the stake
Cremated their bodies
And stuffed them in an urn wrapped in red, white, and blue . . .

Rummaging through a forest set ablaze by one lethal match
With witty catch phrases forever attached to the side of their kingdom
Operation Iraqi Freedom Links to Al Qaeda Eminent Threats
And weapons of mass destruction . . .

They've been skillfully thrown into the lion's den
Out of the frying pan and into the furnace
Their courage exceeds any measuring stick
But they can hear the footsteps of death creeping around the corner
For they've been led into the eye of the storm
Transformed into peacekeepers
Lending a helping hand for the poorly planned post-war strategy . . .

I attempted to get my message out to the papers, but nobody wanted to cover it. I tried The Washington Post and The Washington Times, since those papers covered our team. But I was met with a resounding no.

Then, at one particular anti-war rally, I performed a poem called "The Field Trip.” I named some ten Republicans I wanted to take on a field trip to see the results of their policies. My piece went viral before going viral was a thing. There was no social media or Twitter back then, but soon the story of the rally was everywhere.

All the criticism being leveled at Kaepernick takes me back to those days and the hate mail delivered to me at the then-MCI Center (now Verizon Center). I played with Michael Jordan and Gilbert Arenas, so I saw guys get stacks and stacks of fan mail delivered to them every day. I would get a few letters here and there, but after that rally I started getting boxes. Some of the letters were supportive, but a lot of them were filled with anger and hate.

I didn't have any other players speak out against me the way Kaepernick has, but a lot of players did come up to me during games and offer me support. Some of them were superstars. I also caught a backlash from media types who disagreed with what I believed.

Today, I take my hat off to Colin Kaepernick for everything he is enduring, especially now in the age of social media. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry can develop what I call “Twitter courage” and type a hateful, evil condemnation of Colin Kaepernick. As Dave Zirin, sports writer and my co-host on the radio show "The Collision: Where Sports And Politics Collide," has put it:

"Twitter is the white hood of the twenty-first century. It’s where bigots revel in their anonymity and rage against the current, where people can be both hateful and cowardly."

Kaepernick reported that he’s received death threats as a result of his stand. That shouldn't surprise anyone. Muhammad Ali, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, and countless other athletes who have taken stands viewed as "unpatriotic" have received similar threats.

Isn't it interesting that many of the same people, who are currently calling Kaepernick “unpatriotic” have been disrespecting our President and First Lady for the past eight years?

Isn't it also interesting that those same people who describe Kaepernick’s stance as disrespectful to veterans aren't as angry at George W. Bush who sent those veterans to die for a lie? Isn't it interesting that these same conservatives have voted against better health care and aid to vets after they come home?

A lot of people have a confused interpretation of patriotism. They are terribly concerned about Kaepernick but are unconcerned about the countless veterans and current soldiers who actually need help. If you're not offended by the fact that one out of two veterans who have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan knows a fellow soldier who has attempted suicide, or by the two million vets who don't have insurance, or the 50,000 who are homeless, but you are offended by Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem, you have greatly misplaced your patriotism.

What's beautiful to see is how Colin Kaepernick's message is spreading and how it is resonating with so many athletes, from high school football teams to Howard University cheerleaders.

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At first, only 49ers teammate Eric Reid joined Kaepernick. But then more teammates, including Antoine Bethea, Eli Harold, Jaquiski Tartt, and Rashard Robinson joined in, raising their fists during the national anthem at San Francisco's September 18 game against the Carolina Panthers.

NFL player Jeremy Lane of the Seattle Seahawks sat during the national anthem. Kansas Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters raised his fist, and told reporters he supports Kaepernick's efforts to raise awareness about our broken justice system. On Sunday Night Football, Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett and safety Devin McCourty also raised their fists for the national anthem.

Although he lost two endorsement deals, Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall also took a knee during the national anthem at the NFL regular season opener, and says he will continue to kneel.

And even though a Miami-area police union asked deputies not to escort Dolphins unless players stand for the anthem, four Dolphins players—running back Arian Foster, safety Michael Thomas, wide receiver Kenny Stills, and linebacker Jelani Jenkins—on the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, took a knee during the anthem, after standing up for a 9/11 acknowledgment.

Rams defensive end Robert Quinn and wide receiver Kenny Britt also raised their fists. Not only are they taking the stand in solidarity with Kaepernick, but they are verbalizing and articulating exactly why they are taking that stand. Arian Foster tweeted, "Don't let the love for a symbol overrule the love for your fellow human." Brandon Marshall was quoted as saying, "I'm not against the military. I'm not against the police or America. I'm against social injustice."

What's almost more impressive is how this message is resonating with high school athletes who, as we know, are greatly influenced by professional athletes. They are watching, learning, and taking stances of their own. Not because it's a new fad as some sports commentators remarked, in a feeble attempt to discredit and demean this movement, but because they have their own experiences with injustice. Some have stood in the face of adversity, hatred, and threats of physical harm.

A Brunswick, Ohio, high school football player named Rodney Axson Jr. was threatened with lynching and called the N-word by his white teammates after he knelt to protest racism on Friday, September 2.

Garfield High School's football team and coaching staff, along with more than a half-dozen West Seattle High School players, took a knee while the national anthem played before their Friday night game.

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They were not intimidated by critics including Trent Dilfer, Dabo Swinney, Kid Rock, Tony La Russa or Kate Upton. Nor did they stand down when Mike Ditka, Jim Harbaugh, Vikings offensive lineman and Kaepernick's former teammate Alex Boone, Jason Whitlock, Boomer Esiason, Victor Cruz, Tiki Barber, U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin, and Shaquille O’Neal all used their platforms to discredit, condemn, and ridicule Colin Kaepernick and other athletes for having the moral courage to stand up for what they believe in. One would think they would be just as vocal in condemning social injustice and the countless murders at the hands of the police that have gone unpunished. More than two dozen black people were killed during encounters with police in just the first six weeks after Kaepernick began protesting.

Where is their condemnation of that?

They were silent when, on September 16, police murdered unarmed Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who was guilty of having car trouble and expecting the police to help him out. They had nothing to say when, on September 20, the Charlotte police killed a disabled black man whose name was Keith Lamont Scott, allegedly guilty of reading a book in his car.

In both of these recent cases, officers went out on paid administrative leave. As Colin Kaepernick said in his postgame interview after taking a knee during the national anthem, "There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

They should be outraged at that and not at whether Colin Kaepernick and other athletes are sitting or standing during the national anthem. As a wise saying goes, "Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are just as outraged as those who are."

Thank you, Russell Westbrook, for expressing your outrage about this case. And thank you Rajon Rondo, Iman Shumpert, Dwyane Wade, Matt Barnes, Anthony Morrow, Nick Young, Nate Robinson, and Kenny Vaccaro for speaking out about the Terence Crutcher murder in my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Thank you, coach Steve Kerr, who when asked about Colin Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the national anthem in protest said,

"No matter what side of the spectrum you’re on, I would hope that every American is disgusted with what is going on around the country.”

Thank you to coach Stephanie White of the Indiana Fever and the entire Indiana Fever team, who all took a knee before their playoff game.

I applaud all of the athletes for having the moral courage to withstand the backlash, the criticism, the outrage, the venom, and all of the hate, and use their position as a platform to speak out and bring awareness to an issue that has plagued our country for far too long.

Much respect to them.

Etan Thomas played for eleven years in the NBA, has written three books, and is a motivational speaker and radio co-host with Dave Zirin of The Collision: Where Sports And Politics Collide.