Most distractions are harmless in nature. Remember when playing Angry Birds on your phone was the latest craze? It was a small game that morphed into a pop culture phenomenon before dissolving into obscurity just as fast as it climbed into relevancy. Fantasy sport was just another pastime, a hobby at best, that you and some friends could connect with each other about. Now it’s a billion dollar industry that has extended its reach worldwide. Misdirection starts out as a harmless idea until it takes on a life of its own, further evading the original purpose.

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been steadfast in his message for racial equality, specifically as it relates to the oppression of people of colour in the US and police brutality. In an act of defiance that began in earnest in the 2016 NFL preseason, Kaepernick would sit on the 49ers bench on two separate occasions during the US national anthem. With the quarterback not in uniform for both of those games, no attention was given to him or his cause. When Kaepernick finally suited up, he sat once more on the bench and this time reporter Jennifer Lee Chan of Niners Nation snapped a photo of the former Nevada quarterback sitting alone by the Gatorade coolers as the rest of the Niners stood solemnly during the playing of the anthem.

It was the first time Colin Kaepernick’s protest made headlines. For the player who would become the story, Kaepernick quickly assumed the face of frustration and anger in America. From civil unrest to foreign policy to racial and gender equality to the political upheaval stoking the flames, Kaepernick’s actions spurred the conversation with the country’s biggest sport serving as the platform. Questioned about his motivation to sit during the national anthem, Kaepernick revealed:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colo[u]r”

Kaepernick continued, stating:

“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.”

Little did Kap or anyone else realize how prophetic that last statement truly was. While Kap chose to kneel as opposed to sit on the bench out of respect for military veterans, his protest continued throughout the remainder of the 2016 season. Games started being overshadowed by the protest rather than the final score. It quickly became a reality that players in the league had a voice and a platform to speak their mind about issues they’re passionate about.

After many heart-to-heart discussions behind closed doors, the Niners continued to support Kap’s freedom of speech. Some teammates even joined in, such as S Eric Reid who would kneel the remainder of the season in support of not just his teammates, but the causes he championed so vehemently. Soon, players across the league were taking knees, sitting on the bench or staying in locker rooms to show their displeasure for life outside the game. For the first time in a long time in the sporting world, players had more to say than just what happened during the game.

Playing the sports’ most scrutinized position, having people chase you down comes with the job. For Kaepernick, he crossed the line between sports and politics few athletes dare approach. The fear of losing endorsements, losing earning potential and ultimately being kicked out of the league is too paralzying for most players, even though they tower over you and me. It’s career suicide to start talking about politics as an athlete.

Former teammates safety Eric Reid (left) and QB Colin Kaepernick take a knee during the national anthem.

Kap took plenty of hate, threats and jabs from all sides of the political spectrum. Chief among the complaints was how the protest disrespected the men and women who served in the armed services for the country. Despite professing his appreciation for those men and women, Kaepernick tried to point out that his actions were not meant to disrespect the people who serve, but to bring attention to the injustice that remains prevalent in the country.

Helping to raise awareness of one issue apparently led to perceived disrespect of a certain portion of society. Instead of looking into what was being protested, those who opposed Kaepernick’s view criticized the protest itself.

Cue the President of the United States:

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b**** off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired, […] You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”

That speech only went on to fuel all parties to protest more emphatically or to call out the disrespect of the protest altogether. The protesting continued, even after Kaepernick was released from the Niners for what the team described as a performance-related issue. After the season, Kaepernick received zero calls to play for the other 31 NFL squads. There were conversations, denials and tryout offers, but nothing came to fruition as the league appeared to want to move on from the man who had politised the game of football. Kaepernick does not yet garner the reverence of former Browns’ RB Jim Brown, or anti-Vietnam war activist/ St. Louis Cardinals linebacker David Meggyesy, though we hope in time he will. Will Kaepernick’s knee become as iconic as Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fist in the air during the 1968 Olympics Games in Mexico City? Time will tell.

However, for the lanky QB out of Wisconsin, it appears that now he’s bigger than the sport itself. Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL in about two years, but his jersey still remains as popular as ever. Kaepernick remains outspoken about his causes and charities to improve the world through example. Donating millions to charities of his choosing — not simply by showing up and writing a cheque, but by talking to organizers and researching the scope and reach of each fund he considers attaching his name to. Kap surely would love to be slinging the ball down the sideline to a receiver for a TD and celebrating with teammates in the endzone, but that pales in comparison to what the QB is doing now.

Nike recently named the unemployed athlete as a spokesman for their Just Do It campaign, with the Kap being a feature in magazine ads, commercials and upcoming product lines. For their part, Nike believes that they’re backing a just cause in a man who was not afraid to bite his tongue about the world he lived in and how his honesty cost his career in the NFL.

To the dismay of those who denounced Nike for signing Kaepernick to an endorsement deal , the athlete is earning a big pay day and, perhaps just as important, validation from a fortune 500 company. While some people threaten to never buy a product embroidered with a swoosh ever again and others continue to go about their consumerist life as usual,  Kaepernick continues to press his agenda for equality forward in spite of the outcry.

The attention that Kaepernick gathers now can’t be met with fines or suspensions. Instead he continues to draw attention to the flaws of society that few want to admit exist and others wish to remain blissfully ignorant about. Because now Kaepernick doesn’t need to take a knee to stand up for what he believes is right.

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