Kaepernick’s road to influence

Sport is the perfect arena to spread messages and therefore an excellent window into how communication functions in our society. In a seemingly meaningless preseason NFL game, Colin Kaepernick sparked a political movement that carried dramatic effects through both his team, the league, and around the country (SB Nation, Sandritter). By first sitting then, eventually, kneeling for the national anthem Kaepernick simultaneously inspired and offended millions causing one of the most talked about movements in the last decade.

Colin Kaepernick has never stated publicly that he had a desire to ignite a movement when he first launched his anthem protest. For him it was much more simple, either sit back and watch what is going on or take action. The BLM movement had been going on for roughly a year and a half prior to the beginning of the anthem protests. However, once prominent athletes started to become more active and involved the movement took large steps forward. The issues being laid out on a national stage, forcing the country to listen, elevated the effect BLM had on the general public. According to Leland Griffin a social movement occurs when “1. Men have become dissatisfied with some aspect of their environment; 2. They desire change — social, economic, religious, intellectual, or otherwise — and desiring change they make efforts to alter their environment; 3. Eventually, their efforts result in some degree of success or failure” (The Rhetoric of Historical Movements, Griffin). The work being done by athletes in the NFL and the BLM organization fits seamlessly into these prerequisites. The first quote Kaepernick gave to the media after kneeling sums up his utter restlessness over the black situation in America perfectly, “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” (NFL.com, Wyche). The strong words of a post game interview can not sum up the frustration the black community deals with, but it is representative of why action is necessary. Man has become dissatisfied. The second aspect of Griffin’s definition is also demonstrated in his quote. Kaepernick clearly illustrates that things are not okay the way they are. There would be no reason to protest if there was nothing to change. Finally, the third and most difficult question to answer, can change actually be made? The reason it is hard to answer this question is because progress towards a more tolerant and accepting society is hard to quantify. The answer is yes, because although it may be difficult to see the direct impact these protests have had on the black community, it is evident that they have made on mark on society as a whole. Kaepernick made the shortlist for Time’s Person of the Year alongside Donald Trump. Over 130 players protested in Week 4 of the NFL season (The Atlantic, Garber). The influence “kneeling” has had on the US race conversation is enough to qualify it as a social movement under Griffin’s definition.

In order for a movement to arise, there needs to be a specific set of circumstances within society at that place in time. This “rhetorical situation”, as defined by Bitzer, is described as, “rhetorical discourse comes into existence as a response to situation, in the same sense that an answer comes into existence in response to a question, or a solution is response to a problem” (The Rhetorical Situation, Bitzer). In terms of the national anthem protests, it is evident that the direct goal is to address police violence against the black community. As evidenced by the rise of protests against police brutality, it is unmistakable that this is an issue close to the heart of many black people around the country (The Guardian, Day). The next crucial piece to Bitzer’s definition is the audience. He requires that in order for it to truly be a rhetorical situation there must be some ability to influence a group of people. Kaepernick’s status as a superstar athlete, along with all those who joined him, shows a definite ability to affect the way people think. His influence was strong before his political activism and it has grown stronger since. Drawing comparisons to Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali, Kaepernick’s political activism has given him more notoriety than he his athlete career ever could have (NYT, Eligon & Cacciola). The last necessary quality of a rhetorical situation according to Bitzer is constraints. A constraint is something that limits the way in which someone can act to change whatever issue they are tackling. In the case of Kaepernick there are strong beliefs and ideologies across the country that counteract his message (Sports Illustrated, King). A clear example of this is his inability to get signed to another NFL team for fear of repercussions from fans. The backlash has been so strong to the simple act of kneeling that it is obvious there are restrictions towards the types of action he can take.

Throughout the entirety of these protests the athletes involved have used non-verbal communication in order to make a point. Their use of visual ideographs strengthens their message and acts as a sign of unity for people within the movement. At the beginning, the images of Kaepernick sitting by himself convey a message of an individual who is willing to stand out based on his beliefs. They acted as a way for people to educate themselves about what was going on and the issues surrounding the protests.

As time has progressed those isolated images turned into entire teams showing their unity and supporting a cause. The development of the movement is clear based on the sheer numbers of people who are participating.

Full teams have protested together linking arms, kneeling, and raising fists in order to show support for each other. The trend has crossed sport, and even gender lines as more people are beginning to rally behind the symbol that Kaepernick started.

As well as having an effect on the overall population, the kneeling movement has also shown us how communication strategies are applied in the real world. From the beginning this has been a very polarizing topic with people on both sides boycotting the NFL for how it has handled the situation. News media from opposite ends of the spectrum have portrayed Kaepernick and other athletes who have kneeled in completely different lights. http://insider.foxnews.com/2017/09/25/tomi-lahren-final-thoughts-free-speech-lesson-nfl-anthem-protesters

Former Fox News anchor Tomi Lahren has had a field day painting a picture of an unpatriotic traitor who wants nothing more than to disrespect the country and the flag itself. She has called for harsher punishment for players who participate in anthem protest and called out the NFL for not doing anything to stop it.


In contrast, an op-ed in the New York Times posted on the exact same day that Lahren called for NFL players to stop their “tantrums” praised the strong political activism and foresight being displayed by the athletes. The difference in the two pieces is a clear example of how larger media organizations have the ability to frame a news story and tailor it to fit their message. Each company has a target audience they are appealing to which only furthers the divisiveness of the movement.

At the start of the protests, before Kaepernick said anything to the media about what it meant, people were baffled as to what was going on. It put people into a shock effect because no one had ever seen anything like that before. That is why when he finally did explain what was going on, the message hit home much harder. This calculated execution of the expectancy violation theory was so effective because it played off social norms in order to get a stronger reaction out of people. The next link attached is a list of high profile people among the NFL and how they first responded. It shows how when someone breaks a social norm it causes an appraisal process which then leads to a positive or negative reaction. It’s also easy to see from the responses that some people were still trying to evaluate how they felt about the protests in general. Of course since these people were speaking the media there is a lot of professionalism in the answers but the main idea carries through.


The quotes range from complete disavowment of his actions to praising him for speaking out against the status quo. Another evident pattern among the reactions is the difference between black and white in terms of support for the movement. An overwhelming majority of black people support at least the message behind the action if not the action itself (SB, Tynes).

The difference between support among black vs. white groups can be attributed the standpoint theory which explains that people’s opinions are based on their own perspective developed through personal experience. During week 4 of this NFL season, the most highly participated protest of the year, the entire Steeler team stayed in the locker room to protest except for Alejandro Villanueva, a veteran of the US Army.

Villanueva’s status as a veteran gave him a different outlook on the anthem and lead him to refuse to participate in the protest. In his eyes, the respect for the flag was enough to isolate himself from the rest of his teammates despite him speaking out in support of the cause. Another place where the standpoint theory is evident is on facebook. Scrolling through the comment section on any news report regarding Kaepernick or the protests in general, it is easy to find people from all different sides of the country voicing their opinion on the matter.

For his message to be truly politically effective, Kaepernick needed to ensure that he was able to properly communicate to his team and the nation the reasons behind his decisions while all together maintaining a positive relationship with his organization. What started with an individual ended up playing a much larger role in the Black Lives Matter social movement because of how Kaepernick powerfully used techniques in order to spread his message.

Works Cited

Davis, Nate. “Alejandro Villanueva: I Threw Steelers Teammates under Bus Unintentionally by Standing for National Anthem.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 25 Sept. 2017, www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/steelers/2017/09/25/alejandro-villanueva-national-anthem-pittsburgh-steelers-protest-trump/702056001/.

Day, Elizabeth. “#BlackLivesMatter: the Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement.” The Observer, Guardian News and Media, 19 July 2015, www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/19/blacklivesmatter-birth-civil-rights-movement.

“From Kaepernick Sitting to Trump’s Fiery Comments: NFL’s Anthem Protests Have Spurred Discussion.” The Washington Post, WP Company, www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/sports/colin-kaepernick-national-anthem-protests-and-NFL-activism-in-quotes/?utm_term=.1fbe952a63c4.

Morrison, Aaron L. “15 Recent Police Brutality Cases That Show How Often Officers Aren’t Held Accountable.” Mic, Mic Network Inc., 7 Nov. 2017, mic.com/articles/184491/14-recent-police-brutality-cases-that-show-how-often-officers-arent-held-accountable#.NmmemhXHN.

Oppel, Richard A. “Steelers’ Villanueva Takes a Stand, but Might Agree With Kaepernick’s Mission.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 Sept. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/25/sports/football/villanueva-steelers-anthem.html.

Pickhaver, John. “Taking a Knee to To Take A Stand: Why NFL Players’ Protest Is Important.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 28 Sept. 2017, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/taking-a-knee-to-to-take-a-stand-why-nfl-players-protest_us_59cc64e7e4b028e6bb0a6846.

Rohan, Tim, et al. “Fan Reaction, Pro and Con, to NFL Anthem Protests.” SI.com, www.si.com/2017/08/28/anthem-protests-grow-voices-fans-and-players.

Yuscavage, Chris. “Colin Kaepernick’s Ex-Teammate Eric Reid Explains Why He Has Resumed National Anthem Protest.” Complex, Complex, 28 Aug. 2017, www.complex.com/sports/2017/08/colin-kaepernick-ex-teammate-eric-reid-explains-why-he-has-resumed-national-anthem-protest.

Leland M. Griffin. (1952) The Rhetoric of Historical Movements. Quarterly Journal of Speech 50:2, pages 113–135.

Bitzer, Lloyd F. The Rhetorical Situation. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1968.



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