Colin Kaepernick changed both the sports world and the real world in August when he refused to stand for the national anthem and said, "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."
Any time an athlete has spoken out in recent years against police violence, whether it's the NBA players wearing "I Can't Breathe" shirts, after New York police killed Eric Garner, or the St. Louis Rams writing "my children's lives matter" on their uniforms, or even tweeting the name of someone killed, it has mattered. It has mattered because it amplifies the struggle. It gives a lift to organizers in the streets who often work in anonymity, doing the difficult grassroots organizing work. And it forces the mass of white people who in our deeply segregated society only actually "see" and acknowledge black and brown people in a positive way when they are playing sports, to confront a distinctly different set of life experiences.
It also speaks to why black and brown athletes have always been policed by the media and sports owners for their political statements. It's not the power of their words as much as the power of their reach.
But Kaepernick's protest has had a different kind of power and reach than anything we have seen in recent years. How do we know? First of all it has enraged all the right people.
Donald Trump, who has spent the last year trashing the United States, said of Kaepernick, "Maybe he should find a country that works better for him."
Iowa Congressman and avowed white supremacist Steve King said of Kaepernick, "This is activism that's sympathetic to ISIS." And supermodel Kate Upton tweeted, "This is unacceptable. You should be proud to be an American."
These critics are ridiculous. But Kaepernick and his supporters have also received death threats from a resurgent white nationalist movement that believes the role of athletes is to shut up and play.
They also have had their First Amendment rights threatened by police: government employees who have said they would not do their jobs if the protests continued. In an astonishing quote, the head of Miami's police union said of protesting NFL players, "I respect their right to have freedom of speech. However, in certain organizations and certain jobs...