In sports, the superstars are outliers. Superstars who have a unique playstyles are outliers. Superstars who are of a different color than the norm are outliers. Flash-in-the-pan superstars are outliers. And even if that superstar has fallen from grace, the clout and notoriety they accumulated make them an outlier.
The even rarer outlier in sports, historically speaking, are the activists; the athletes who use the grand stage of sports to send a message to fans who normally would have preferred to avoid such messages are outliers.
Not everyone is willing to take a stand because of a simple understanding: If a player’s level of talent and production is not equal to or greater than the off-the-field media circus they incite, they’re kicked to the curb. It’s the unfortunate reason that the frequency with which athletes delve into the realm of politics is so low.
Colin Kaepernick was the NFL’s outlier. A former superstar turned average quarterback with a unique playstyle, whose name has become ubiquitous far beyond NFL circles. More crucially, one who protested the racial injustices that have plagued the United States for centuries.
Kaepernick was not the only player to take a knee during the national anthem last year, but because of the mania surrounding his rise to stardom, he was isolated. The quarterback was not labeled as the leader of the movement, but singled out to an extent to which he was the only player associated with the anthem protest. When people defended the right to kneel during the national anthem, it was Kaepernick’s name that came up. When people berated the right to kneel during the national anthem, it was Kaepernick’s name that came up.
Kaepernick’s eventual fate didn’t come as a surprise who have followed moments in which sports intersects with politics. When the NBA’s Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand during the national anthem, he was immediately ostracized, suspended and fined for refusing to stand during the anthem. When his contract with the Sacramento Kings ended following the 1997-98 season, Abdul-Rauf was effectively blackballed, despite being only 28 years old and a viable backup point guard with a knack for knocking down threes.
As Kaepernick would discover some two decades later, Abdul-Rauf couldn’t outplay the distraction which came with his last name donning a team’s jersey. The owners and the league made an example out of Abdul-Rauf, daring other players to participate in protests of a similar nature.
Kaepernick and Abdul-Rauf dared to use their platforms in the face of desensitized injustices to which the sporting world typically turns a blind eye. Despite all of the support them may have received from fans, media and teammates alike, the two were outliers that could be identified and dealt with in order to return a degree of normalcy to the sports bubble.
Kaepernick was once the NFL’s outlier, the sporting world’s outlier. But after No. 45, feeling empowered by the population that still finds ways to support his actions, decided to indirectly call the quarterback a “son of a bitch,” the script flipped. The outlier became the norm. Detractors couldn’t the sporting worldwide protests even if they tried.
Look to the left, and there’s nearly the entirety of the NBA joining forces to publically denounce the presidency and do so with a composure and maturity that the current commander in chief has failed to display since taking the reigns back in January. No. 45 tossed out a hail mary of a power play by attempting to hit the Warriors with the, “you can’t quit, you’re fired,” which made the latest public humiliation of the man whom many call president all the sweeter.
Look to the right, and there’s Bruce Maxwell putting his very livelihood on the line to take a knee during the national anthem, the first recorded incident of a player doing so in Major League Baseball history. Maxwell isn’t someone comparable to Kaepernick and Abdul-Rauf in terms of talent, but a 26-year-old rookie catcher who isn’t hitting at a league-average level, a player who realistically could be released for a plethora of reasons other than his protest.
Maxwell’s ancestry, that of a military family, a mom and dad with an unmistakable affiliation to the United States, helps to makes his cause all the more noteworthy. Maxwell took a stand not in an attempt to disrespect his country; he did so because he loves it.
Look straight ahead: It’s nearly the entirety of the NFL raising a metaphorical middle finger to the president by interlocking arms and taking knees during the national anthem. Black. White. Coaches. Owners. Kaepernick wasn’t suited up to witness the fruits of his labor, but the dialogue he sought to create was alive and well.
If for but a weekend, Kaepernick no longer stood, or rather kneeled, alone, unified with fellow athletes around the country in an effort to raise awareness and fight the racial injustices which have plagued the United States. Pandora’s box has been opened, and we now know that, when provoked, players are willing to take a stand.
Hopefully, this weekend wasn’t just another outlier.