Inside Colin Kaepernick's Fight for Racial Justice: How He's Gone Beyond Just Taking a Knee

Colin Kaepernick
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

The former NFL player’s commitment to social change has expanded well beyond the football field.

Colin Kaepernick’s devotion to dismantling inequality will one day become his legacy. What started as a silent protest against racial injustice and police brutality went global with people around the world taking a knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.  

Since 2016, Kaepernick has gone from a star quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers to a free agent and a polarizing but heroic figure wholly committed to social justice, even if it means risking his NFL dreams. Existing between the worlds of activism and athleticism has never been an easy feat for Black athletes, but the history of defying the status quo is nothing new. Muhammad Ali, Paul Robeson, Wilma Rudolph, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tommy Smith, John Carlos, and many more, pioneered the political outspokenness among athletes that continues today. 

Despite being an NFL free agent, Kaepernick has every intent of returning to the league, while continuing his work beyond football. It was recently announced that Kaepernick is teaming up with Ava DuVernay for the Netflix limited series Colin in Black & White, chronicling his teenage years leading up to the NFL. The series, which is executive produced by Kaepernick and DuVernay, is among a slew of special projects for Kaepernick as he continues to expand his reach beyond the football field. 

In October, Kaepernick introduced newcomer Jaden Michael as the young actor who will portray him in the series, marking a surreal moment for the athlete. “I never thought I would be casting a young me in a show about my life,” Kaepernick tweeted at the time.

2020 brought another celebratory milestone for Kaepernick as his 33rd birthday falls on Election Day, one of the most crucial presidential elections to date. Kaepernick has been candid about refusing to participate in the 2016 election (more on that later), but it remains to be seen if 2020 will be the year that he will cast a vote. Having spearheaded a brand of civic engagement where being a sports star worked as a springboard to spread his message, the Wisconsin native’s social justice mission continues to evolve. Last month, Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL announced the “Abolition for the People.” As part of the outspoken athlete's partnership with Medium, the monthlong publishing blitz argues for a “future without policing and prisons,” as told through the voices of organizers, political prisoners, scholars, and advocates.

Check below for more on Kaepernick's fight for change.  

August 2016

Kaepernick quietly begins to protest racial injustice and police brutality by staying seated during the national anthem at a pre-season game. 

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” he explains. “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.” 

Later that month, former Seattle Seahawks player and Green Beret Nate Boyer writes a letter to Kaepernick suggesting that he kneel during the anthem as kneeling is a sign of respect for fallen soldiers. Inspired by Boyer, Kaepernick begins taking a knee during the anthem along with 49ers teammates Eli Harold and Eric Reid.  

Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

September 2016

Kaepernick commits $1 million of his salary, plus all of the proceeds from his jersey sales from the 2016 season, to “organizations working in oppressed communities.” The campaign gives away $100,000 a month for 10 months.

Meanwhile, during the first game of the 2016-2017 season in September, multiple NFL players begin kneeling and raising fists in unity with the social justice movement launched by Kaepernick. 

October 2016

Kaepernick kicks off the Know Your Rights Camp workshops in Oakland, California. The empowering event welcomes 100 Black and Latinx youth from more than a dozen Bay Area organizations.

“This is just the beginning,” Kaepernick says. “What we’ve done here today in Oakland, we want to do all over the county.”

November 2016

Kaepernick chooses not to vote in the 2016 presidential and state elections as another act of protest. “Once again, the system of oppression is what I have an issue with. That’s something that I will continue to not agree with,” he tells reporters when peppered with questions over his voting decision. “I think there’s more ways to create change.”

December 2016

Fellow 49ers players vote Kaepernick the winner of the 2016 Len Eshmont Award. The honor is given to a player who best exemplifies the "inspirational and courageous play” of Eshmont, one of the original 49ers.

October 2017

Kaepernick officially sues the NFL for collusion. The lawsuit accuses league owners of conspiring to keep him from being hired by a team due to his commitment to social justice. 

December 2017

Beyoncé presents Kaepernick with the 2017 Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award in recognition of his commitment to activism. 

“I accept this award knowing that the legacy of Muhammad Ali is that of a champion of the people,” he says. “With or without the NFL platform, I will continue to work for the people. Because my platform is the people.” 

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

May 2018 

The NFL bans players from taking a knee during the national anthem. Players who refuse to participate are allowed to stay in the locker room or in a “similar location off the field” until the anthem ends.  

September 2018

Kaepernick debuts as the face of Nike's “Just Do It” campaign commemorating the brand's 30-year anniversary. The ad features the mantra, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

February 2019 

The NFL settles the collusion case. Kaepernick and his former 49ers teammate, Eric Reid, are awarded an undisclosed settlement that is estimated at less than $10 million.  

Reid, who protested alongside Kaepernick and continued to take a knee on the football field after his teammate became a free agent, filed a similar grievance accusing the NFL of colluding to keep him out of the league. In the end, Kaepernick’s portion of the settlement amounted to less than he made during his final season as a 49er. Reid went on to sign a three-year contract extension with the Carolina Panthers worth $22 million. 

November 2019 

More than two years after playing his final 49ers game, Kaepernick holds what becomes an ill-fated public workout for NFL scouts in Atlanta. Although he doesn't get picked up, he implores team owners to “stop being scared” of signing him. 

April 2020

Kaepernick puts up $100,000 to launch the Know Your Rights Camp COVID-19 relief fund to aid and address the racial disparities further highlighted by the global pandemic. 

“Black and Brown communities are being disproportionately devastated by COVID-19 because of hundreds of years of structural racism,” he explains in a video announcement. 


May 2020

Following the death of George Floyd, Kaepernick announces the launch of a legal defense fund as a show of solidarity with freedom fighters in Minneapolis. 


June 2020  

Kaepernick joins the board of directors for Medium, making him the only minority in the position where he will write about anti-Black race for Level and Momentum blogs. The partnership includes a collaboration between Medium and Kaepernick's publishing company.

“I am excited for Kaepernick Publishing to partner with Medium to continue to elevate Black voices in the news and publishing industry,” he says. In his new role, Kaepernick adds that he looks forward to “creating new opportunities and avenues for Black writers and creators.”