It’s been five years since then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick (in)famously kneeled during the national anthem in protest of the systemic oppression of Black people and people of color in the US. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick famously explained. “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.”
In his new book, The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World, author Dave Zirin explores the historical valences of Kaepernick’s game-changing protest—from the long tradition of athletes making powerful political statements that preceded Kaepernick to the many athletes who have been inspired by Kaepernick and are carrying on that tradition today. In this installment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc talks with Zirin about his new book and the political and cultural significance of “The Kaepernick Effect.” Dave Zirin is the sports editor for The Nation, where he also hosts The Nation’s Edge of Sports podcast. Along with The Kaepernick Effect, he is the author of ten books on the politics of sports and a frequent guest on ESPN, MSNBC, and Democracy Now!
Tune in for new segments of The Marc Steiner Show every Tuesday and Friday on TRNN.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner and it’s great to have you on with us once again. We all know by now this term, taking a knee. Colin Kaepernick and hundreds of others are taking the knee, saying no to oppression, taking a knee on George Floyd’s neck, watching Derek Chauvin’s knee choking the life out of another Black person in this country, taking a knee to protest racism and oppression. It’s not the same as taking a knee to yield, to be knighted, to oppress. He’s taking a knee to stand up. And our guest today, Dave Zirin, a friend, colleague, who I’ve interviewed numerous times over the years has written a new book called The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World. And Dave, welcome back. Good to have you with us.
Dave Zirin: Marc, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Marc Steiner: So it really is true. I mean, this idea of taking a knee.
Dave Zirin: Yeah.
Marc Steiner: And what your book did, and we’ll get in some specifics about it shortly, but it’s the idea of how what Colin Kaepernick did has spread. It’s become a symbol. It’s become a piece of what people do to say, “Enough is enough.” And I had no idea until I read this how pervasive it was across the country.
Dave Zirin: Absolutely. And it’s completely universal, Marc. I mean, if I was in any city, in any setting, whether it was a town county fair or whether it was an NFL game, and the anthem played and I chose to take a knee everybody around me would immediately know what it was in reference to. No one would think I had lost a contact lens [Marc laughs]. No one would think I was saying a prayer. They would say, “Oh, that’s a protest. That’s a protest against racial inequity and police brutality. And that is a protest about the gap between what we’re told this country represents and the lived experiences of far too many people.” That’s the power of the knee.
And in my book, what I write about are all the people who when they saw Colin Kaepernick take that knee in August, oh no I’m sorry, September of 2016, when they saw him do that they immediately said, “Okay, that is a method that I can replicate. And I can use that as a way to show my town, my school, my community that enough is enough.”
Marc Steiner: So what can I say? I just want to say to you again and say to all of our listeners, I’ve interview you for a lot of your books over the years, a lot of them. We’ve had lots of other conversations as well. This is without a doubt I think the best book you’ve ever written.
Dave Zirin: That’s very kind of you. Thank you, Marc.
Marc Steiner: And just the way these stories hold together, and they can tell a tale that we have to wrestle with and understand. So I just want to take a step away for just a second. And tell us a bit about this book and how you did it. I mean, you interviewed people across America: high school kids, college athletes, professional athletes. I mean, how did you approach this? How did you do it?
Dave Zirin: I mean, if it’s okay for me to filibuster for a second [inaudible] [Marc laughs]. It’s interesting, and I think you, Marc, would find this very interesting. I was speaking with 1968 Olympian John Carlos. I wrote John Carlos’s book with him. We’ve stayed very close friends. And so we were just chewing the fat a couple years ago, and John said to me, “After I raised my fist in Mexico City at those Olympics, I heard that there were all these track meets around the country where young people were raising their fist too.” And the amateur historian in me just had synapses in my brain just blow up like, “Who were these people? How did it affect their lives?” I’ve never seen that written in any text about the ’68 Olympics, about the effect that it had on young people, particularly young athletes.
And it made me think very, very hard about all the young people that I’d read about who’d taken a knee after Colin Kaepernick. And I’d only read about it, say, in an Associated Press story here, a Nation article there. There would be articles about maybe these individual cases, individual schools, but I was feeling that what was going to be memory holed was going to be, in other words, absolutely chopped out of the historical memory, was going to be the fact that Colin Kaepernick’s knee had an effect, a chain reaction that was felt in schools across the country and at the professional levels as well. So I wanted to save them from being memory holed, save those stories. That was sort of the part one, and that’s how I sold the book to The New Press. And I started working on it at the start of the pandemic.
But the mission of the book changed dramatically for me after Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. And we had the breaking out of the largest protest literally in the history of the United States. And it made me realize, wow, many roads led us to the summer of 2020, but one of them runs straight through the athletic fields of the United States and that story needs to be told.
Marc Steiner: I actually was not aware until I read the book of the numbers of people that actually did this in high schools and colleges and how it affects athletes who are in the Olympics and professional athletes, and how they were all affected by this.
Dave Zirin: Yeah.
Marc Steiner: One of the things I’d like to talk about though, as we get into some of the stories– You can pick a few that you really like to tell, and maybe read a piece from the book–Is that this book really, what you’re doing in this book is it seems to me, really kind of unearthing the pervasiveness and the depth of racism in this country.
Dave Zirin: Yeah.
Marc Steiner: And how the assumption of power is fought subtly and overtly to crush this, and tying those together. It’s a sports book, but it’s about what’s laced through it is the power of racism in America.
Dave Zirin: Yeah. I mean, one person joked with me that I should’ve called the book What to Expect When You’re Protesting. Like What to Expect When You’re Expecting, but What to Expect When You’re Protesting. Because the book really does walk you through, and the people I speak with really walk you through what happens when you take a knee during the Anthem for a sports team. What could possibly happen with your relationship with your coach? What could happen with your relationship with your teammates? How do you handle death threats? All of that stuff runs through the book. And you’re right, so right about the pervasiveness of racism in the United States. First and foremost about that, I’ve got to say when I’ve been on other radio shows, of course not yours, Marc, people ask me this question about: Why did Colin Kaepernick choose to polarize the nation [Marc laughs]?
And you have to respond, Colin Kaepernick didn’t polarize anything. It was the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in that summer of 2016 right before he took the knee. It’s racism and police violence that has polarized this country, not Colin Kaepernick. That’s just an expression of the already existing polarization. And when I went and spoke to these young people, that was one of the things that I learned that was really striking about the pervasiveness of racism, the way it shapes the lives of young people. The name that I heard more than Colin Kaepernick when I spoke to people about their motivations was Trayvon Martin.
Marc Steiner: You took the words out of my head because one of the subtitles I gave to that chapter was “Generation Trayvon.”
Dave Zirin: Yeah. “Generation Trayvon” is very accurate because it marked this young generation of athletes that took a knee because Trayvon Martin is killed in 2012. That was nine years ago. So if you’re 19 years old, that means Trayvon Martin was murdered when you were 10. And think about being 10 years old and learning about Trayvon Martin. That means you’re old enough to know what’s happening, but you’re also young enough to wonder why the world has to be this way. You still have that kernel of innocence about the world, asking, “How can the world accept such horrors?” I think when we get older, we callous ourselves and start off from the starting point that the world has horrors.
And it marked these folks, and it reminded me so much, Marc, of when I’ve interviewed civil rights veterans from the ’50s and ’60s, and the way they speak about Emmett Till. And this idea of when they saw the image of what Emmett Till looked like after he’d been brutalized and lynched in Mississippi, and this is where the Trayvon connection is so important, and when the obvious perpetrators were granted a free pass afterwards, and completely escaped justice. It marked people in the 1950s the same way Trayvon Martin’s murder, the stalking and murder of Trayvon Martin, marks this generation of young people.
And then the last thing, this was something about the book, Marc, that I didn’t even realize until I got in a discussion with somebody else, and he said, “Dave, this book seems to have made you optimistic.” And I said, “Yeah, it did make me optimistic talking to all these people who were willing to brave so much to speak out about the world.” And he said to me, “Well, there’s part of the book that’s making me pessimistic.” And I said, “What part is that?” And he said, “You notice a common thread in all the stories, whether it’s red states, blue states, rural areas, big cities, is that all of these young people, they perform this peaceful act of civil disobedience and they’re met with the threat of violence.” So violence runs through the reactions of people, the reactions of white people to the folks in my book who took a knee, and that’s really stunning.
There is no let’s disagree without being disagreeable. There is none of that when it comes to people’s reaction to this. The reaction is brutal because—for a lot of reasons, but I think most fundamentally it’s that they go to football, or volleyball, or soccer, because I interview all kinds of athletes who took a knee, they go there for the purposes of escape. And they also have the privilege of not having to think about the dead bodies in the streets. They have that privilege to affect a degree of blindness about what’s happening. And these young people are ripping that away from them. They are saying, “No, this is not going to be your safe space of the football field. And yes, you have to deal with what I’m dealing with.” And if you feel uncomfortable, as one person said to me who I interviewed, I believed her name was Mink Richardson Clerk.
Marc Steiner: Oh, yeah. Right.
Dave Zirin: I [inaudible] story. But she said that if this makes you that uncomfortable for the length of a song, think about how I feel in this community every hour of every day.
Marc Steiner: And the breadth of people in this was amazing to me too. Let’s talk a bit about that. I actually talked to my daughter about this book, my youngest who is generation Trayvon, and I’m generation Emmett. It really connects here, and I think that when you look at these kids, how they were affected by what Kaepernick did, I think that is something … I’m going to connect something here. That is how these kids were, how these kids were affected by that, by him and especially high school and college kids, how they moved him. And also, at the end of the book, man, when you in your epilogue are talking to John Carlos, which was an amazing thing. And one of the things you said in this was that, let me just read it for a minute. John Carlos said to you, “They have to realize that they are not in the moment. In this instance, they are in the movement, whether they like it or not. This is not a one shot deal.”
And he goes on just to talk about how you have to understand Black consciousness. You have to understand your history. There’s a great line in here where he says, “You have to understand what’s going on before your time in order to have the ammunition, intelligence enough to load your gun economically, emotionally, politically, socially, to fight this cause that we’re in.” I mean, there’s this connection here, and also what these kids experience. That to me is the powerful undertone of this entire book.
Dave Zirin: Yeah. And it was interesting in speaking to these young people, they may not have known the names John Carlos and Tommy Smith, or they may have known only the most superficial parts about Mohammed Ali. But once they took the step to become athlete activists, they realized that they were actually carrying on a tradition, and usually with the help of some teachers. And teachers to me are kind of the unsung hero of the book in some cases. They start to learn, and they start to read, and they start to realize that they are standing on the shoulders of giants when they bring protest to this athletic space, and that was beautiful as well. And I’ve got to say two more quick things.
Marc Steiner: Please.
Dave Zirin: One of the great things that I think, even though this book is called The Kaepernick Effect, and it’s about the effect that Colin Kaepernick had on so many people by taking that knee, really giving a language for how to protest that did not exist before. One of the things that Colin Kaepernick, though, has done quite concretely which I think has been great, is that he’s met with people like John Carlos and Tommy Smith and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Craig Hodges. He’s been the sort of person who has tried to connect with that older generation of political athletes. And that’s so terrifically important because it’s a great political move. I mean, more than just showing respect or educating the masses by meeting with someone like Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who was a Denver Nuggets player in 1996 who didn’t come out for the anthem and it cost him his career.
By doing things like that, it also buttresses his own case that he has the right to be political. He can say, “How dare you say that I don’t have the right to take this knee, that I don’t have the right to dissent that sports is this apolitical zone? Don’t you realize the incredible tradition from Jackie Robinson, from Jack Johnson, from Joe Lewis, from Billie Jean King? I’m on the shoulders of giants here.” And I appreciate Colin doing that.
The last thing to say is I got in a little back and forth with my publisher, who wanted me to write my own epilogue to the book in my own language, in my own words, sort of the way the introduction is. And I said, “No, I think this book needs to end with the words of John Carlos, not the words of me.” I want to center John Carlos as the last word in the book because of the content of what he was saying, and also because one of the points of the book is really to center other voices.
I’m happy to be the person who opens the door to these voices, as I try to do in the introduction by giving context do the non-sports fan of what the hell I’m even talking about. But once we get to the people, it’s their voices that must be centered, not least of all because Colin Kaepernick has chosen silence these last four years, and that’s been an interesting political strategy on his part and one I don’t begrudge him a bit because silence can in fact be very powerful and it can create a degree of mystique and interest that might not otherwise be there. But at the same time, it’s like if his voice isn’t going to be centered in this movement that he really launched, my voice should certainly not be centered. It should be the voices of the people who took the risk and took the knee. And that’s why it was so important for me to end with John Carlos.
Marc Steiner: I think that what you’re describing here, when you read what they told you, all these athletes, you can see in most of the Black, all the Black athletes that you write about, when they grew up–And many of them grew up in a white world, which I found really interesting–And those who grew up in inner city worlds, but what they all experienced was racism and the fear of being Black in America at certain times of your life, they expressed that. And then the opening of some of the white athletes who also took a knee that you write about that [inaudible].
Dave Zirin: Couple of white athletes sprinkled in there, one of them being Megan Rapinoe, the most prominent athlete who’s ever taken a knee, who also happens to be white. And I thought that was important too because I want young, white athletes to read this book and be ready to kneel, whether it’s in solidarity with their teammates, or because they don’t want to live in a racist world. And I want them to see that it’s been done in different settings, women athletes, men athletes, non binary athletes, and that they were able to express themselves politically around this cause. And I think that’s important too because when I would speak to the Black athlete, the Black athlete would say, “I want my white teammates to be involved in this struggle because it takes weight and attention off of my shoulders.” So this is really an I am Spartacus moment when [inaudible] takes the knee. And I wanted white readers to see themselves in this process.
Marc Steiner: So a couple of things here that were striking to me about a lot of the stories and the consequences. I want to try to get to two things here. If you want to bring up any examples, or I can, that’s fine. But the athletes, a lot of these athletes paid a huge price for what they did: fear of losing a scholarship, being pushed out of the Major Leagues in baseball, which is probably the most conservative end of professional sports, which you write about. Right? And being really pushed and attacked, not everybody, but many of them, by the coaches, by the universities, by the owners of the teams, what they faced to do this and the consequences of their actions. There’s a sacrifice made here. It wasn’t just taking a knee so people see you in the press. They sacrificed a lot to do this.
Dave Zirin: Yeah. The knee is just the beginning of the story in every single case. The knee was the beginning of the story for the people who I interviewed because they’re not taking a knee as an end in and of itself. They’re doing it to try to provoke a conversation and provoke a discussion about racism and what people can do to fight it. They were not doing it to get death threats. They were not doing it to be harassed. But you mentioned universities and coaches, and I think that was such an important part of the story for me to include because it was so important for me that people understand that the backlash was not made up of some tobacco spitting fan who believes in mom, apple pie, and country. I mean, you certainly had a lot of that. But what was often much scarier for the amazing folks who took a knee who I interviewed was the institutional backlash, not the sort of grassroots backlash. That can be frightening, but you can also ignore that, particularly if you have solidarity and support from the people around you.
But far from solidarity and support, far too many people were left alone on the island. I mean, I think of Rodney Axson, who I interviewed and spoke with in the book. He’s the person who I’ve identified as the first person to take a knee after Colin Kaepernick. He was somebody who was a football player in suburban Cleveland in a place called Brunswick, where, and this is terribly ironic, but he grew up in Cleveland, and his mom moved him and his little sister out of Cleveland so they could go to a predominantly white school that would be safer, and get a better education. That was the thinking of his family. And yet, he goes to this school, he’s not necessarily safer because there’s racial invective being set all around him. And it didn’t get any safer when he decided to take that knee. And he eventually is walking, the image of him walking his little sister to school because the death threats he’d gotten were so severe is one that I’m going to always carry with me.
But what was so striking though about Rodney Axson, Jr. is that in his head, he’s thinking, “I need to do something. I absolutely need to do something. But what the heck can I do in Brunswick? I’m so frustrated with the world. I’m so frustrated with the racism on this team. What can I do?” And when Colin takes his knee, it’s like a click in his mind where it’s just like, “Yes, I can do that. I may not be able to walk out of my house and go to the Brunswick town center to a Black Lives Matter demonstration, but I can take a knee on the football field, and hopefully provoke the kind of productive discussion that could end the kind of racism that I have to deal with on the team.”
Marc Steiner: One of the things that struck me was both high school and college kids, the courage it took because many of them were alone. I mean, they had empathy from other players, some other players, and others, but mostly, they did it alone.
Dave Zirin: Yeah. Yeah, there are some rare cases in the book talking about Seattle, Garfield High School.
Marc Steiner: Right. Right.
Dave Zirin: Camden, New Jersey, and the football players at Denby and Detroit. And there, you had more than one player take a knee. And more often than not, that’s done because you have a coach who’s not some authoritarian wanna-be Bill Belichick, but [inaudible][Marc laughs] coach who actually believes, heaven forfend, that particularity at the high school level, sports should be an educational experience, not an experience that’s about necessarily wins and loses, about being the be all, end all. I mean, we all know it’s more fun to win than lose. But that doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing just because it’s the thing that brings you the most joy in the process of playing high school sports. Someone from Baltimore, Joe Ehrmann, former Baltimore Colt, somebody who’s devoted his life to coaching, being an actor.
Marc Steiner: Great guy.
Dave Zirin: Great guy. Joe Ehrmann once said something to me that I’ll never forget. He said, “There are two kinds of coaches, the transactional and the transformational. And the transactional is about what’s in it for me, for my own sense of ego and glory. And the transformational is thinking, ‘What’s in it for the kids? And how is this experience changing their lives?'” The coaches at Garfield and Camden and Denby and Detroit, these coaches were transformational coaches.
Marc Steiner: Yes.
Dave Zirin: It’s not even necessarily, like in Denby’s case for example, that they were hard core in agreement with the aims of taking a knee or anything like that. But they understood the value of giving space to young people to express themselves politically. And in those cases, the young people came out a lot better than in the cases where somebody is alone taking that knee. And maybe the ones that really were upsetting were when they thought they had a coach on their side, or they thought, “Of course, my teammates are going to have my back, particularly my white teammates, because we’re always preaching we’re family here. So surely, if a family member’s upset about something, we can all come together as one and support each other.” But that was not the case.
Marc Steiner: Just a personal note, my nephews in Seattle went to Garfield.
Dave Zirin: Well, then you know that Garfield, the high school of Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones, is this fulcrum of Black culture and art in the middle of what is a very white city. And that’s always made Garfield a very liberal city too, and that’s always made Garfield have a very high profile in the city. So when the football team first takes a knee and the coach, Joey Thomas, provides them a support for doing that and backs them up, I tell the story in the book. They think they’re going to be feted. After all, this is liberal Seattle. Surely, everyone will love them for doing this. And Joey Thomas got his tires slashed and ended up being forced out of his job, death threats called into the school. So there is no easy road for fighting racism in this country.
Marc Steiner: So when you look … I’m sorry. Go ahead, man. Finish what you were saying.
Dave Zirin: No, no, no. It’s just to say that you read this book and you get a taste through the lens of sports what it is actually like on a very granular level to say, “I don’t want racism in my community,” and say it to people’s face.
Marc Steiner: So in this country, we make so much of our sports world and athletics. And so many of the athletes that people love are people of color, are Black folks and other folks, and people of color in this country in all the sports. And then you look at the reactions that have happened with the owners of the teams, communities around these schools, the coaches, and what this brought out. Almost, not everybody, but almost to a person in your book, what these young athletes and professional athletes experienced was a horrendous outpouring of racism and literally physical threats and threats against their lives and their families. I mean, what erupted over taking a knee and saying, “No, you’re denigrating the troops,” when a lot of these kids, people were in the service. Right? And so talk about the dynamic you think this exposed, and how you, and as Carlos said at the end of the book, “How you think about a movement being built around this and not just a protest?”
Dave Zirin: Well, do you have the book in front of you, Marc?
Marc Steiner: I do right here.
Dave Zirin: Because I do not, and there is a line, I start the entire book with this quote from Howard Bryant.
Marc Steiner: Oh, yes. You do.
Dave Zirin: And I’m going to keep talking for a minute while you find the quote.
Marc Steiner: I got it. I got it. I got it right here.
Dave Zirin: Oh, great. I think it would be wonderful, Marc, if you could read that quote because I think it answers your question with utter clarity. This is actually from an interview that I did with Howard Bryant on my own podcast.
Marc Steiner: And Howard Bryant is?
Dave Zirin: Oh, I’m sorry, is a terrific sports writer and author. He’s written the definitive biography of Henry Aaron, The definitive book about Black baseball in Boston. I mean, he’s just a very accomplished, very smart social observer, and he also happens to work at ESPN.
Marc Steiner: There you go. So I’ll read it, this is it. As you were saying that, I’m going, “Where are my glasses?” They’re on my face. So here we go. All right. Good. All right. Howard Bryant, “The kneeling gesture is a spot where America comes apart, where all the post 9/11, pro police messaging and militarism at sporting events collide to the reality of the cops and the military. In no other element of our culture is there such a clear and defiant single gesture like taking a knee. Where else are we allowed the space to say we disagree with our police? Where else can we register one gesture, dissent with the alleged ideals of this country? America is getting called out with this one gesture, and they’re determined to punish anyone using it.” That is a very powerful, very powerful statement.
Dave Zirin: Yeah. It’s so good. And it’s also, I think, prophetic because when you think about the anti critical race theory hysteria at these school board meetings, what they often talk about is, you are making my white child uncomfortable in the classroom by talking about slavery, by talking about racism. And so it’s like the feelings of the white child have to be preserved at all costs. And it’s similar with the knee thing. It’s like, “How dare you make me think about things that I don’t want to think about? How dare you make me think about racism? How dare you impose the truth upon my life?”
And it comes down to, I think, something that’s existed in this country since the days of the transatlantic slave trade, it’s just carried forward, this idea of white fear and violence as a response to, rather than acknowledge their own crimes. And you see that I think in the microcosm of how people respond to the knee, how people are responding to even the idea of teaching about slavery, for goodness sakes. And it’s this backlash that has serious fascistic, that means fascist overtones and undertones, about: How dare you diminish our national glory? And when they say our, they mean white nationalism.
Marc Steiner: And that is what we face right now. This is a discussion we should have one day together because that is clearly what we face. And this book, let me just close with this. I’m going to close with the other thing in your foreword because I think it gives you the essence of what all these young people and athletes faced. And you have a [inaudible] credo at the beginning of the book, and it’s, “Being brave doesn’t mean not being scared. It means being scared and doing it anyway.” And that’s what all these people did in this book.
Dave Zirin: Yes.
Marc Steiner: All these young kids, all these athletes did. They faced the wrath of the owners of the teams, they faced the wrath of their schools, the wrath of the university presidents, the wrath of community, screaming the n-word at them, and they did it anyway, and [inaudible] or N word at them, but they persevered. I think that underlies this book, and it’s what you walk away with.
Dave Zirin: Thank you, Marc. I really appreciate that.
Marc Steiner: This is a great book. It’s a great book. So folks, let me give you the book’s name again. And it’ll be on the website. It’s The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World, by Dave Zirin, Z-I-R-I-N, in case you don’t know. And you can also read him in The Nation, where he’s their sports editor. And his column is also for the progressive and host of The Edge of Sports Podcast. And it’s always a pleasure talking to Dave, and thanks so much for this book. It’s really an important one, and let’s push it out there. Thank you.
Dave Zirin: Thank you, Marc.