Taking a Knee for Justice How Colin Kaepernick inspired a cohort of athletes to think of patriotism differently.

The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World

By Dave Zirin (2021, The New Press) 219 pages

For a long time, Dave Zirin has stood out among American sportswriters. Rather than emerge from one of the most prominent sports journalism “j-schools” across the country (Northwestern, North Carolina, Missouri, Penn State, etc.), he graduated from the 2,000-student private liberal arts Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1996. Rather than gain practice by covering campus sporting events, one of his most formative college experiences was studying abroad in post-Pinochet Chile, trying to interview former allies of Salvador Allende. And rather than climb the ranks as a beat writer at a major daily newspaper, Zirin started as the news editor at The Prince George’s Post near Washington, D.C., while racking up bylines across an array of sports and politics websites including Source, The Black Sports Network, the International Socialist Review, and Z Magazine.

Zirin’s weekly column The Edge of Sports adopted an unapologetically progressive and anti-war viewpoint at the exact moment that most of the “athletic industrial complex” (his coinage) lined up behind the militaristic, first-pitch-throwing George W. Bush administration’s “War on Terror.” When The Nation publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel made Zirin its first-ever sports columnist, a role he still holds, Zirin consciously modeled the appointment on The Daily Worker’s 1936 hiring of Lester Rodney, a sportswriter who convinced the mid-century CPUSA outlet that sports were less an “opiate of the masses” than a playing field where labor consciousness could be raised and racial injustice erased through sustained public outcry and committed muckraking. Zirin showed political progressives the merits of sports as a cultural battlefield, and he provided sports fans a political perspective rarely seen at the time outside of academia. For Zirin, sports never merited the derisive moniker of the “toy department” within news media—even if he felt too many of his colleagues blithely accepted the political status quo. Over the past twenty years, Zirin has steadily built a following through weekly columns, an “Edge of Sports” podcast series, a spate of books (the best of which are, in my opinion, the deftly researched and timely Brazil’s Dance with the Devil (Haymarket, 2014) and the evenhanded critical biography Jim Brown: Last Man Standing (Blue Rider Press, 2018)), plus an imprint at independent publisher Akashic Books through which he has lifted the voices of like-minded athletes and writers.

As Howard Bryant has excellently argued, the easy commercialization of patriotism via camouflage uniforms and “support the troops” platitudes that existed at the nexus of sports, media, and politics during the War on Terror years has been challenged by military quagmire in the Middle East and by the assault on Black life within the United States. Beginning with the murder of Tamir Rice in 2012 and the Miami Heat’s poignant visual rhetorical response to the then-common allegation that Rice’s choice of clothing got him killed, sports journalists have been forced to reckon with a generation of Black activist athletes who no longer believe that their sponsorships come at the price of their silence, whose citizenship extends into their workplaces. That activism reached its spectacular apogee with San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling on the sideline during the National Anthem during NFL preseason games in August 2016. Kaepernick’s solemn protest against police brutality was distorted by prevailing frames within American sports culture that conflated military and police and unequivocally labeled both groups “heroes.” A gesture designed to generate conversations about policing policy became a referendum on “patriotism.”

Zirin showed political progressives the merits of sports as a cultural battlefield, and he provided sports fans a political perspective rarely seen at the time outside of academia. For Zirin, sports never merited the derisive moniker of the “toy department” within news media—even if he felt too many of his colleagues blithely accepted the political status quo.

In typical fashion, President Donald Trump exploited the cultural division to his own political ends. In a September 2017 speech in Huntsville, Alabama, Trump pantomimed being an NFL owner—a role he desired long before he entered American politics—and imagined firing Kaepernick in crass terms: “Get that son of a bitch off the field!” Like many newsrooms, ESPN memorably struggled with its response to Trump. Its Public Editor, Jim Brady, insisted that ESPN would not “stick to sports” in April 2017—then his position was discontinued less than a year later. High-profile SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill publicly feuded with Trump in October 2017 after labelling the president a “white supremacist” on Twitter and was suspended by the network for violations of its social media policy; she left the company within a year for The Atlantic. For a fuller catalogue of the anxieties and tensions that journalists must navigate on the field, in the newsroom, and within American culture, see sports media scholar Michael Serazio’s excellent The Power of Sports: Media and Spectacle in American Culture (2019).

Nevertheless, within this evolving sports media ecosystem, there has arisen a generation of sports journalists who, partly in response to reader demands, now acknowledge that their appreciation for and love of sports is contingent on the political and moral values that those athletes, sports, and institutions represent. Beyond Bryant’s The Heritage (2018), which is not afraid to praise and blame individual athletes, other recent texts in this mold include Stacey May Fowles’s Baseball Life Advice (2017), Robert Scoop Jackson’s The Game is Not a Game: The Power, Protest, and Politics of American Sports (2020), Jessica Luther and Kavitha Davidson’s Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back: Dilemmas of the Modern Fan (2020), and Craig Calcaterra’s Rethinking Fandom: How to Beat the Sports-Industrial Complex at Its Own Game (2022). Granted, there is also the inevitable conservative counterpoint, Clay Travis’s Republicans Buy Sneakers, Too: How the Left Is Ruining Sports with Politics (2018). But, with some justification, The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis wrote in 2017 that sportswriting, for a variety of reasons, has largely “become a liberal profession.” As Curtis writes, “There was a time when filling your column with liberal ideas on race, class, gender, and labor policy got you dubbed a ‘sociologist.’ These days, such views are more likely to get you a job.” So, the question emerges: How does the most well-known left-wing sportswriter cover the biggest story about sports and social change in a generation, when many in the profession have edged toward his way of viewing sports?

Whereas most sportswriters focused on Kaepernick and the celebrity professional athletes that followed his lead, in The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World, Zirin instead mostly features the high school and college athletes and coaches that drew inspiration from Kaepernick. He notes that while professional athletes might now be able to kneel without risk or reprisal, these interviewees “endured on a small-town scale what Kaepernick suffered for taking a knee: death threats, ostracization, condemnation, and a whole lot more.” (xi) Zirin’s efforts here, then, are curatorial, a series of question-and-answer dispatches across the country to attempt to understand what motivated individuals to emulate what had become the most polarizing gesture in the country.

The results are—well—almost sociological, as Zirin’s interviews bring to life the complex biographies, personalities, and idiosyncrasies of individual protesters. It is not worth recounting each story at the individual level, since the collective is much more than the sum of its parts, but a few themes emerge. First, these individuals all demonstrate an astute awareness of how their actions were perceived locally—within a team dynamic, among coaches and administrators, and by parents and fans. Some sought to explain and receive permission for their act in advance, from teammates or coaches; others acted more spontaneously. Second, these interviews provide evidence of what I would call “patterns of activation”: gradually or suddenly learning unsettling truths about the persistence of anti-Black racism firsthand, from friends, or in classrooms; watching videos of police violence and seeing athlete activism on social media; and feeling called to respond due to an exigence in the local community. The roles that friends, teammates, coaches, and educators play in helping to guide  athletes on their journey toward social consciousness are instructive here; they do not  find themselves motivated by Kaepernick’s protest in a vacuum. Finally, Zirin asks interviewees to reflect upon the risks that they faced in taking the knee. In some communities, those risks were very real: teams disbanded, automobile tires were slashed, slurs were uttered, coaching positions were lost, friendships were soured. Yet almost all reflected gratefully on how they met the historical moment with the poise and conscientiousness of non-violent direct action that—to paraphrase from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”—can “create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community […] is forced to confront [an] issue” it would prefer to ignore. In telling these stories of how firsthand experience, education, and growing awareness lead to activism, I was drawn to how so many of these miniature biographies parallel Kaepernick’s own story.

Zirin’s efforts here are curatorial, a series of question-and-answer dispatches across the country to attempt to understand what motivated individuals to emulate what had become the most polarizing gesture in the country.

Zirin does not get an interview with Kaepernick, but he does close with a section of interviews with professional athletes who protested police brutality: Kaepernick’s former teammate Eric Reid, Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell, hammer thrower Gwen Berry, NFL wide receiver Kenny Stills, USWNT playmaker Megan Rapinoe, and former NFL defensive end Michael Bennett, followed by an inspirational epilogue from John Carlos, whose defiant black-gloved fist at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics remains a touchstone of athlete activism. Their interviews are structured to highlight their parallels to high school and college athletes. Each hopes to be a link in a longer chain of athlete activists that stretches back decades, spans a range of sports, and trickles down from professional athletes to college and high school sports. Though the effect of so many stories could feel repetitious to some, the cumulative impact  to me is more of an invigorating bandwagon effect, opening my eyes to the wide variety of figures who found in Kaepernick’s gesture what the visual rhetoric scholar Caitlyn Bruce has called, in another context, an iconic “affect generator” that elicits solidarity.

Although I rate The Kaepernick Effect highly as a work of journalism that showcases the real-world effects and efficacy of athlete activism, it is not without flaw. At his worst moments, Zirin now overgeneralizes a conservative sports media landscape to present himself as a progressive counterforce. As I have tried to show in my introduction, while sports institutions like the NFL and large corporations like ESPN may remain conservative and driven largely by financial factors, many talented individual sportswriters have moved leftward. In some cases, Zirin invents scarecrows to pillory the industry. Without citing any of the coverage he derides, he criticizes early responses to Kaepernick by writing that “many in my profession lived up to Hunter S. Thompson’s description of sportswriters as ‘chimps masturbating in a zoo cage.’” (6) More seriously, though, he fails to provide the professional courtesy of acknowledging when he draws inspiration from some of the new practitioners in the field. For instance, Zirin claims that Kaepernick’s “words were different because, as welcome as the outspokenness of other athletes was, they were calling for peace, whereas Kaepernick was calling for justice” draws from Bomani Jones’s column “Kaepernick is asking for justice, not peace” in The Undefeated in August 2016, a piece so well-respected that it was reprinted in The Best American Sports Writing 2017, edited by Bryant. Even more unfortunately, Zirin never mentions the Think Progress database that Lindsay Gibbs and Aysha Khan launched in September 2016 to document all the individual instances of high school, college, and professional athletes protesting during the National Anthem. Zirin seems to have found some of his sources for interviews through this database. Its name: “Tracking the Kaepernick Effect.”

Obviously, Zirin does not need to be held to the same citational standards as an academic; he is a sports journalist, and lack of attribution issues frequently arise on stories that move from local to national import. However, these instances prove that the beat that Zirin used to patrol alone at the nexus of sports and politics is no longer “The Edge of Sports.” It is the center—and we all need to get used to it.