Kneeling During the National Anthem: History of the Peaceful Protest

Photograph of Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers kneeling during the national anthem.
Colin Kaepernick, #7 of the San Francisco 49ers, kneels on the sideline during the anthem, as free agent Nate Boyer stands, prior to the game against the San Diego Chargers on September 1, 2016. Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Kneeling during the national anthem is a form of peaceful protest started by black American professional football player Colin Kaepernick in August 2016, as an attempt to call attention to the police shootings of unarmed black Americans that had given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013. As more athletes in other sports followed suit, the reaction from the sports establishment, politicians, and the public triggered an ongoing debate over racial inequality and police brutality throughout the United States.

Key Takeaways

  • Kneeling during the U.S. national anthem is a personal expression of protest against perceived social or political injustices most closely associated with black American professional football player Colin Kaepernick.
  • Other manners of protesting during the national anthem date to World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam War.
  • Sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement, Kaepernick began kneeling in 2016 as a protest against shootings of unarmed black Americans by police.
  • During the 2017 professional football season, as many as 200 other players were observed taking a knee.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump criticized professional athletes who protest in this way, calling for them to be fired.
  • Since leaving the San Francisco 49ers after the 2016 season, Colin Kaepernick has not been hired by any of the other 31 National Football League teams. 

National Anthem Protest History

The practice of using the national anthem as a stage for political and social protest is far from new. Long before kneeling, or “taking a knee” replaced it, simply refusing to stand during the national anthem became a common manner of protesting against the military draft during World War I. In the years before World War II, refusal to stand for the anthem was used as a protest to the growth of dangerously aggressive nationalism. Even then, the act was highly controversial, often resulting in violence. While no law has ever required it, the tradition of performing the national anthem before sporting events began during World War II.

Beginning in the late 1960s, many college athletes and other students used their refusal to stand for the national anthem as a show of opposition to the Vietnam War and a rejection of nationalism. Then as now, the act was sometimes criticized as an implicit show of support for socialism or communism. In July 1970, a federal judge ruled that forcing civilians to stand during “symbolic patriotic ceremonies” against their will violated the freedom of speech provision of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Photograph of African American US track team members Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising gloved Black Power fists as civil rights protest during medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City
African American US track team members Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising gloved Black Power fists as civil rights protest during medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. John Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

During the same period, the Civil Rights Movement gave rise to more widely publicized anthem protests. During the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, black American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos, after winning gold and bronze medals, famously looked down—instead of looking at the U.S. flag—while raising black-gloved fists on the awards podium during the national anthem. For displaying what became known as the Black Power salute, Smith and Carlos were banned from further competition for breaking the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) rules against mixing politics with athletics. A similar medal award ceremony protest in the 1972 Summer Olympics saw black American runners Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett banned by the IOC. In 1978, the IOC adopted Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, officially banning all athletes from staging political protests on the field of play, in the Olympic Village, and during medal and other official ceremonies.

Racial Discrimination and Profiling

Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, wars and civil rights issues continued to fuel sporadic national anthem protests at sporting and entertainment venues. By 2016, however, racial discrimination in the form of police profiling, often resulting in the physical abuse of people of color, had become a leading cause for anthem protests. Racial profiling is defined as the practice by police of suspecting or presuming the guilt of individuals based on their race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin rather than on physical evidence.

In 2014, two years before Colin Kaepernick knelt during the anthem, racial profiling was widely viewed as a factor in the highly publicized deaths of two unarmed black men at the hands of white police officers.

On July 17, 2014, Eric Garner, an unarmed 44-year-old black man suspected of selling untaxed cigarettes, died after being thrown to the ground and placed in a chokehold by white New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo. Though he later resigned, Pantaleo was not charged in the incident.

Less than a month later, on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager videotaped stealing a pack of cigarillos from a local market, was shot to death by white police officer Darren Wilson in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. While acknowledging a systemic pattern of racial profiling and discrimination by the Ferguson Police Department, both a local grand jury and the U.S. Department of Justice refused to bring charges against Wilson.

Both incidents resulted in protests, highlighted by the Ferguson Riots, a series of violent skirmishes between protesters and police spanning several months. The shootings also created an atmosphere of distrust and fear of the police among a significant sector of America’s black community, while fueling an ongoing debate over the use of deadly force by law enforcement.

Colin Kaepernick Kneeling

On August 26, 2016, a nationwide TV audience saw professional football player Colin Kaepernick, then the starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers National Football League (NFL) team, sitting—instead of standing—during the performance of the national anthem before the team’s third preseason game.

Responding to the uproar that immediately followed, Kaepernick told reporters that he had acted in response to the shootings of unarmed black Americans by police and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. “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 stated. “There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” 

Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem before his team’s final preseason game on September 1, 2016, saying that the gesture, while still a form of protest against police brutality, showed more respect for U.S. military members and veterans.

While public reaction to Kaepernick’s actions ranged from disgust to praise, more NFL players began staging silent protests during the national anthem. Over the course of the 2016 season, the NFL suffered a rare 8% drop in its television audience. While league executives blamed the drop in ratings on competing coverage of the presidential campaign, a Rasmussen Reports poll conducted on Oct. 2-3, 2016, found that almost 32% of those surveyed said they were “less likely to watch an NFL game” because of players protesting during the national anthem.

During September 2016, two more unarmed black men, Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher, were shot to death by white police officers in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Referring to his anthem protests, Kaepernick called the shootings “a perfect example of what this is about.” When photographs showing him wearing socks depicting police officers as pigs appeared, Kaepernick claimed they were meant as a comment on “rogue cops.” Noting that he had family and friends in law enforcement, Kaepernick contended that he had not been targeting police who carried out their duties with “good intentions.”

At the end of the 2016 season, Kaepernick decided not to renew his contract with the 49ers and became a free agent. While a few of the other 31 NFL teams showed an interest in him, none offered to hire him. The controversy surrounding Kaepernick intensified in September 2017 after President Donald Trump urged NFL team owners to “fire” players who protested during the national anthem.

In November 2017, Kaepernick sued the NFL and its team owners, claiming that they had conspired to “whiteball” him from playing in the league because of his on-field political statements rather than his football ability. In February 2019, Kaepernick dropped the action after the NFL agreed to pay him an undisclosed amount of money in a settlement.

Photograph of demonstrators holding “Take a Knee Against Racism” signs
A coalition of advocacy groups 'take a knee' outside of a hotel where members of the NFL met on October 17, 2017 in New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Though Kaepernick’s football career was at least put on hold, his work as a social activist continued. Shortly after he first took a knee in September 2016, Kaepernick announced his “Million Dollar Pledge” to help meet community social needs. By the end of 2017, he had personally donated $900,000 to charities across the country addressing homelessness, education, community-police relations, criminal justice reform, inmates’ rights, at-risk families, and reproductive rights. In January 2018, he made the final $100,000 donation of his pledge in the form of separate $10,000 donations to ten charities matched by various celebrities including Snoop Dog, Serena Williams, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant.

Ripple Effect: Kneeling During the National Anthem

Though Colin Kaepernick hasn’t played in a professional football game since January 1, 2017, the use of deadly force by police has continued to be one of America’s most divisive issues. Since Kaepernick’s first kneeling protests in 2016, many athletes in other sports have staged similar demonstrations.

Photograph of protestors rallying in support of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick outside the offices of the National Football League.
Activists raise their fists as they rally in support of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick outside the offices of the National Football League on Park Avenue, August 23, 2017 in New York City. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

National anthem protests by other professional football players peaked on Sunday, September 24, 2017, when the Associated Press observed more than 200 NFL players kneeling or sitting during the national anthem before games around the nation. In May 2018, the NFL and its team owners reacted by adopting a new policy requiring all players to either stand or remain in the locker room during the anthem.

In other sports, national anthem protests have been highlighted by soccer star Megan Rapinoe. Along with helping lead the U.S. women’s national soccer team to gold medals in the 2015 and 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup tournaments, Rapinoe was captain of the Seattle Reign FC of the professional National Women's Soccer League (NWSL).

At the NWLS match between her Seattle Reign FC and the Chicago Red Stars on September 4, 2016, Rapinoe took a knee during the national anthem. When asked about her protest in a post-match interview, Rapinoe told a reporter, “Being a gay American, I know what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties.”

When she was named one of Glamour magazine’s 2019 Women of the Year, Rapinoe began her acceptance speech on November 13, 2019, by referring to Kaepernick as the person “I don’t feel like I would be here without.” After praising Kaepernick for his “courage and bravery,” the soccer star and activist continued, “So while I’m enjoying all of this unprecedented, and frankly, a little bit uncomfortable attention and personal success in large part due to my activism off the field, Colin Kaepernick is still effectively banned.”

Photograph of women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe kneeling during the National Anthem
Megan Rapinoe #15 kneels during the national anthem prior to the match between the United States and the Netherlands at Georgia Dome on September 18, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

As of the start of the 2019 football season, only two NFL players—Eric Reid and Kenny Stills—continued to kneel during the national anthem in defiance of a league policy which could cost them their jobs. On July 28, 2019, Reid told the Charlotte Observer, “If a day comes that I feel like we’ve addressed those issues, and our people aren’t being discriminated against or being killed over traffic violations, then I’ll decide it’s time to stop protesting,” concluding, “I haven’t seen that happen.”

Sources and Further Reference

  • Farmer, Sam. “National anthem protests are the main reason fans tuned out NFL in 2016.” Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2017, https://www.latimes.com/sports/nfl/la-sp-nfl-anthem-20170810-story.html.
  • Evans, Kelly D. “NFL viewership down and study suggests it’s over protests.” The Undefeated, October 11, 2016, https://theundefeated.com/features/nfl-viewership-down-and-study-suggests-its-over-protests/.
  • Davis, Julie Hirschfeld. “Trump Calls for Boycott if N.F.L. Doesn’t Crack Down on Anthem Protests.” New York Times, September 24, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/24/us/politics/trump-calls-for-boycott-if-nfl-doesnt-crack-down-on-anthem-protests.html.
  • Mock, Brentin. “What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings.” CityLab, August 6, 2019, https://www.citylab.com/equity/2019/08/police-officer-shootings-gun-violence-racial-bias-crime-data/595528/.
  • “More than 200 NFL players sit or kneel during anthem.” USA Today, September 24, 2017, https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/nfl/2017/09/24/the-breakdown-of-the-players-who-protested-during-the-anthem/105962594/.
  • Salazar, Sebastian. “Megan Rapinoe kneels during National Anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick.” NBC Sports, September 4, 2016, https://www.nbcsports.com/washington/soccer/uswnts-megan-rapinoe-kneels-during-national-anthem-solidarity-colin-kaepernick.
  • Richards, Kimberley. “Megan Rapinoe Dedicates Women Of The Year Acceptance Speech To Colin Kaepernick.” Huffington Post, November 13, 2019, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/megan-rapinoe-colin-kaepernick-glamour-awards_n_5dcc4cd7e4b0a794d1f9a127.