The moment he walked onto the stage at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was showered with applause.
He is an imposing figure in person, a tall, lean man who still looks as if he could lead an NFL team on a scoring drive. But there is no football for Kaepernick, only battles and crusades off the field.
He joined a prestigious group of eight people who were honored Thursday with the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal from the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard for their contributions to black history and culture. Among the recipients was comedian Dave Chappelle, who sat next to Kaepernick during the two-hour-plus ceremony.
As Kaepernick listened attentively to the speeches of the other honorees, including author Florence Ladd, who implored the crowd of 500-plus to “protest, protest, protest,” physicist Shirley Ann Jackson and lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson, he appeared humbled and acknowledged that he recognized the impact of his work and campaign against police brutality and social injustice.
In 2016, Kaepernick, as a member of the San Francisco 49ers, began sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem prior to games, as a message to America to improve its treatment of people of color. The move became a polarizing and impactful act in professional sports and society.
After his contract expired after the 2016 season, Kaepernick was not signed by another NFL team and remains unsigned. He is currently suing the NFL for collusion and his representatives asked that his acceptance speech not be recorded on video.
It was obvious during his three-minute speech that he was at a loss for words. Kaepernick has become a national hero in some circles, someone comparable to Muhammad Ali in sacrificing his prime athletic years for the sake of his beliefs.
It’s obvious Kaepernick would still be in the NFL if not for his kneeling. As NFL teams search for capable quarterbacks and lesser players such as Nathan Peterman, Sam Bradford and Blaine Gabbert are still getting opportunities, Kaepernick is likely never to get another chance.
He was the final of the eight honorees to speak and noted professor Cornel West gave him a rousing 10-minute presentation speech, leaving Kaepernick even more soft-spoken.
“As I was sitting there thinking about what I was going to say here, I had a little short speech written but it just didn’t seem true to what this moment should remain, with the authenticity and the passion and the inspiration that’s in this room,” he said.
Kaepernick then described the week after he first kneeled and how the entire Castlemont High School football team in Oakland, Calif., followed suit.
While he spent pregame with the team, Kaepernick heard one of the players say, “We don’t get to eat at home, so we’re gonna eat on this field.”
“That moment has never left me,” he told the crowd. “And I’ve carried that with me everywhere I went. And I think that’s the reality of what I fought for, what so many of us have fought for. People live through this every single day and we expect them to thrive in situations where they’re just trying to survive.
“I feel it’s not only my responsibility but all of our responsibilities that as people who are in positions of privilege, in positions of power to continue to fight for them, uplift them, empower them. Because if we don’t we become complicit in the problem. It is our duty to fight for them and we’re going to continue to fight for them.”
Agree with him or not, Kaepernick has undoubtedly sacrificed for his cause. Some can make the ridiculous argument about his lack of quarterbacking skills or below average record in his final season, but it’s apparent he is being blackballed from the National Football League.
The Carolina Panthers took an important step forward by signing former Kaepernick teammate Eric Reid, a cornerback who kneeled side by side with Kaepernick and has spoken his truth since joining the Panthers about what he perceives as systematic oppression of people of color.
It’s not that NFL fans, sports fans and any American has to agree with Reid or Kaepernick, it’s their right to wholeheartedly disagree, but those men should be allowed to express their beliefs instead of “sticking to sports.”
Nike recently endorsed Kaepernick with their 30th anniversary campaign with the slogan, “Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything.”
“As I reflected on that, it made me think of if we all believe in something, we won’t have to sacrifice everything,’’ Kaepernick said. “Thinking about the initiation of this protest, this stance and where we’re at currently, I go back to something I said in a speech previously, that love is at the root of our resistance, and it will continue to be and will fortify everything that we do.”
He appears more than willing to risk his professional career, the glamorous lifestyle for the sake of what’s in his heart. Some people, beginning from the highest-ranking public official in Washington, can criticize Kaepernick’s methods, misconstrue his message as unpatriotic, deflect the intention of his actions to an “us against them” debate, but it does nothing to help solve the fundamental issue of disparity amongst race and gender.
The adulation Kaepernick received Thursday appeared overwhelming to him. But it’s evident that Kaepernick has at least made us think, and rethink and think again. Creating change is a process that takes lifetimes, but Kaepernick, in his own way, used his popularity as a vehicle to spark thought and change.
And that is why he belonged among those brilliant honorees.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.