Programming note: Watch the full interview with Nate Boyer and Charles Woodson on tonight’s episode of “Race In America: A Candid Conversation” on NBC Sports Bay Area at 8 p.m., hosted by Monte Poole and Logan Murdock.
Just before the 49ers' penultimate preseason game of 2016, quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench as the National Anthem played at Levi's Stadium. Following the game, he explained the gesture was a protest against police brutality.
It wasn't Kaepernick's first foray into activism. He was inspired to protest by the murder of Mario Woods, who was killed by San Francisco police after an alleged stabbing in 2015. But this was the first time he used the NFL's platform to convey his message and the response was mixed. While he got some support, many league faces like New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees criticized the protest, saying it disrespected the military. Others, like President Donald Trump, later offered the same refrain.
Former NFL long snapper Nate Boyer harbored similar feelings. Inspired to join the military after the Sept. 11th attacks, later becoming a Green Beret. Boyer, a white male, saw the flag as a symbol of his fallen comrades in the line of duty. But instead of openly criticizing Kaepernick, he sought to understand his point of view.
"That really hurt me," Boyer said. "But I also was like, "All right, don't just react because of your emotions."
The two met days after Kaepernick's initial protest, just before the 49ers' preseason finale against the San Diego Chargers. In the hotel lobby, Boyer told Kaepernick about his experiences with the flag. About the time he brought one of his best friends home in a casket draped with the flag. How standing for the anthem meant he was in solidarity with his fallen soldiers. But Kaepernick had a different take on the anthem and how the lyrics "liberty and justice for all" didn't always apply to Black people. At the end of the meeting, Kaepernick asked Boyer a question.
"Nate, do you think there's another way I could demonstrate or protest that won't offend people in the military?"
Boyer suggested Kaepernick kneel for the anthem and the quarterback agreed. However, despite Boyer's recommendation, Kaepernick's biggest detractors maintained the talking point that the QB's new method of protest was disrespectful to anyone that had served. The stubbornness showed that even when a person's message is crystal clear, critics will use talking points to dilute it, instead of talking things out to enact real change.
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While Kaepernick was settling into a new form of protest, former Raiders defensive back Charles Woodson was starting his post-playing career in broadcasting at ESPN. He had experienced racism during his youth.
"I remember one time in probably middle school where we got into it with some folks down the street from my house, and the police rode up on us, man, into our neighborhood and cop has his gun out," Woodson recalled. "He's shaking like a leaf. I'm sitting there standing still and I'm talking to the officer. It's almost as if I'm trying to talk him down, but I'm like, "Hey, man, I'm not moving. I see you shaking, man. I'm not moving, and I'm not going to move."
As Kaepernick remained steadfast in his decision to kneel, Woodson noticed the message behind it continued to be distorted by those criticizing him.
"People put him on opposite sides of the flag, and that's the way it was presented," Woodson explained. "This is Colin Kaepernick. He's protesting against America. Maybe he doesn't want to be here. He doesn't respect our military. He doesn't respect the flag. And it's like the entire message that he put forth just went right over everyone's head."
Kaepernick kept kneeling and the criticism kept coming, even as police kept killing citizens. Trump continued his verbal onslaught, tweeting players should be "fired" for kneeling. At a rally in Alabama, Trump used inflammatory language in arguing that owners should discipline players who kneeled during the anthem.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b---h off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired! You know, some owner is gonna do that."
All the while police kept killing unarmed Black people. In 2018, Stephon Clarke was killed by Sacramento authorities in his backyard. Police shot 20 rounds, thinking Clarke had a gun. Following the shooting, only a cell phone was recovered on Clarke's person. More disturbing, both police officers involved were cleared of all charges.
Nearly two years later, George Floyd -- a 46-year-old Black man -- died after fired Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin -- a white man -- pressed his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd pleaded, "I can't breathe." Floyd was detained after a store owner alleged he used a counterfeit $20 bill. Police also initially alleged he resisted arrest, but nearby surveillance footage disputed those claims. Since Floyd's death, protests have sprouted around the globe, including Germany and Australia.
As the protests grew in numbers, Kaepernick's name was brought up again, only now with much more reverence. Numerous athletes began plotting out similar protests when their respective sports returned from the coronavirus-inflicted hiatuses. Nonetheless, Brees was still among those pushing back with similar rhetoric, criticizing the form of protest while continuing to miss the point.
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“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country," Brees told Yahoo Finance earlier this month. "I envision my two grandfathers, who fought for this country during World War II -- one in the Army and one in the Marine Corps, both risking their lives to protect our country and to try to make our country and this world a better place. … Is everything right with our country right now? No, it’s not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together.”
This time, however, it was Brees catching the brunt of the criticism, with pundits and players alike reminding him why Kaepernick protested in the first place. But therein lies the problem in today's world. Folks tend to stick to talking points instead of conversing with one another to enact real change. Instead, more should take the route of Boyer and try to understand what the historically-disenfranchised race has been going through for centuries. Maybe then, we can see real change.
"People are kind of gravitating towards one side of an issue or another side of an issue, and not really wanting to hear the other side's opinion or consider the other side's perspective as being valid," Boyer said. "Which is very unhealthy and dangerous."