Like many Americans under 50, I found things to do other than watch the Super Bowl. So I spent Sunday night doing what many others likely did, not watching the actual event, but reading the Twitter reactions to the event.
Within my networks, what seemed to matter the most was the Superbowl halftime performance (I watched it later on YouTube). It was an homage to 90s hip hop. Eminem, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and Mary J. Blige headlined the show, and a cameo was made by 50 Cent.
On one end, you had Charlie Kirk, president of the right-wing organization Turning Point USA, tweeting: “The NFL is now the league of sexual anarchy. This halftime show should not be allowed on television.”
Kirk’s former employee and fellow conservative Candace Owens thought differently, tweeting: “This is an excellent Super Bowl halftime performance. Undeniable hip hop and R&B excellence.” But her followers buried her with reactions that I can only interpret as the show being too Black.
On the other end, it received praise. Many saw the performance as one of the greatest halftime shows ever, on par with Prince’s iconic turn in 2007.
Jane Coaston, a Times contributor and occasional guest host of The View, tweeted: “This is the most I’ve ever seen a Super Bowl crowd seem to legitimately enjoy a halftime show.” One of the more funny responses was from former South Carolina congressman Bakari Sellers tweeting, “This Critical Race Theory halftime show is .”
The show ended with Eminem kneeling in an apparent homage to quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and it's time we honor him for being integral to the social movement addressing police brutality in the United States.
Phases of a movement
There are many ways in which social scientists attempt to understand the how and whys of social movements (you can browse a popular college text here). I’m going to use one of the simpler narratives from the great sociologist Herbert Blumer. Blumer’s narrative helps me chronicle the Black Lives Matter movement and Colin Kaepernick’s place in it. Blumer wrote that social movements go through four stages that are more or less sequential:
- Social ferment stage.
There is a lot of uncoordinated agitation about things not being right, about policing not being right in Black and brown communities. The media is again talking about no-knock warrants, because of the killing of Amir Locke, but this is not a new issue. The legendary artist Gil Scott Heron wrote a song called “No Knock” in the early 1970’s.
- Popular excitement stage.
The problems are made more concrete and precise. The movement progresses from a sense of things not being right, to OK we need to deal with these specific problems. We can point to the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012 as the beginning of this phase. Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman caused national outrage, and brought Stand Your Ground laws under scrutiny. In 2014, the death of Eric Garner brought into question the use of chokeholds. In 2020, the death of Breonna Taylor introduced the dangers of no knock warrants.
- Formal organization stage.
Organizations are retooling to deal with the problems articulated. The most high-profile organization is Black Lives Matter, which was formed in 2013 after Zimmerman was acquitted. Or other organizations like Race Forward are reorienting some of their focus toward the problems articulated. There are also many institutes, conferences, and non-profits set up to deal with the problems of police brutality and racism.
The movement becomes accepted as a part of society, either as a permanent aspect of our institutions (educational system, police departments) or the organization itself becomes an institution. The civil rights movement became institutionalized with the passing of Civil Rights legislation. The NAACP is still a part of society.
So where does Colin Kaepernick fit into all of this?
Tipping a cap to Kap
In August 2016, Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, sat on the bench during the national anthem of a preseason game.
It was a wonderful form of civil disobedience. He was not required to stand during the anthem, and so his sitting should have been seen for what it was, a silent, symbolic, lawful act of civil disobedience. People would, and they did, ask him why he sat. After the game, he 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.
The following month, Kaepernick’s silent protests turned into the form we recognize now, and it was a national story. Other teams participated in the protests. Obama supported Kaepernick’s right to protest. Time put him on the cover. Then presidential candidate Donald Trump, never straying from character, said protesters like Kaepernick should “leave the country.”
The team coach benched him. The organization restructured his contract, voiding his last three years. Midway through the season, he was benched.
Kaepernick opted out of the final year of his contract, but despite his solid record as a quarterback was not signed by any other team or given a tryout. For those of you who do not know, this is a very rare occurrence. Speculation was that he was blackballed. He has been out of football since 2017.
What Kaepernick did by protesting police brutality on the largest possible stage in American – professional football – helped institutionalize the claim that Black Lives Matter in this country. He helped prevent the dismissal of police brutality protests as the mere knee-jerk reactions of disgruntled youth. Why is this highly paid, highly valued football player doing this?
He helped counteract the damaging narratives conservatives were spinning about BLM being a communist organization by making protests popular across teams, leagues and diverse group of players. Our most accessible heroes – athletes – became communicators of social justice. Is Justin James (JJ) Watt from Wisconsin a communist? He took a knee, didn’t he?
The movement could not be pigeonholed and dismissed. You know something is an integral part of our country when members of Congress are participating in it. Remember when the Democrats took a knee for eight minutes and 40 seconds in George Floyd’s memory?
Colin Kaepernick did that.
When Eminem took a knee, it came full circle.