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Athlete Activists Aren't New. Kaepernick Is Just The Latest


There may be a bigger audience than usual for tonight's NFL preseason game in San Diego. It's the first time San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has played since he refused to stand for the national anthem. The reason? Kaepernick says he didn't want to demonstrate pride in a country that oppresses black people and people of color.


COLIN KAEPERNICK: You know, this country stands for freedom, liberty, justice for all, and it's not happening for all right now.

MONTAGNE: Many Americans say that not standing during "The Star-Spangled Banner" is unpatriotic. But in the sports world, there's a long history of the flag salute as political statement, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: In 1968, Tommie Smith was a very fast man.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In the center of the field, it's Tommie Smith running through.

GOLDMAN: At the Mexico City Olympics, he became the first to run under 20 seconds in the 200 meter dash. But, of course, Smith, the gold medal winner, is best known for what he did standing on the victory platform. His raised, clenched fist during the national anthem, along with American teammate John Carlos, became an iconic protest against racial discrimination. The moment's been rekindled this week because of Colin Kaepernick. Tommie Smith has no problem linking the two actions 48 years apart.

TOMMIE SMITH: And it always deals with the flag. He sat because it doesn't represent. We stood because it doesn't represent.

GOLDMAN: Smith and Carlos were part of a group of athlete activists in the 1960s, including Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown and others. Kaepernick isn't acting in a vacuum either. Prominent African-American athletes, especially NBA and WNBA players, have been speaking out against violence directed at black citizens and police, mostly with messages about healing and bridge-building. Tommie Smith notes that Kaepernick's message is less conciliatory.

SMITH: This is not about wearing T-shirts. This is about putting your life on the line and being heard on a global level.

GOLDMAN: And the way Kaepernick's doing it is particularly precarious.

TONI SMITH-THOMPSON: People have a very specific and special relationship and connotation to the American flag and the national anthem.

GOLDMAN: Toni Smith-Thompson found out just how special 13 years ago. In 2003, she was a senior captain of the women's basketball team at Manhattanville College in New York. Angry about America's war in Iraq and racial issues in the U.S., Smith-Thompson started turning her back on the flag during the national anthem.

SMITH-THOMPSON: I thought it would be least disruptive if I was standing with my team, but I could also fulfill my conscience to not stand and salute the flag, but turn the other way.

GOLDMAN: Smith-Thompson became, like Kaepernick now and Tommie Smith a generation ago, a pariah to many. After death threats, the school provided her with security.

SMITH-THOMPSON: You know, I didn't go out. I spent a lot of time off campus. I spent a lot of time in my room. It was uncomfortable.

GOLDMAN: There have been angry reactions to Kaepernick, including people burning his jersey. Others have objected to the method, but defended his right to protest. Kaepernick says he'll continue the sit-downs. Toni Smith-Thompson says she still avoids events where the anthem is played or she shows up late, after the anthem. Tommie Smith, however, says his national anthem protest days are over.

SMITH: It is not 1968, and, yes, I have stood for anthems. And I'm still proud of America. But that pride resonates a bit deeper, meaning that no matter how good you are, you always have to continue to maintain the idea of becoming better.

GOLDMAN: Tonight in San Diego, Colin Kaepernick is expected to play against the hometown Chargers. San Diego has a huge military population and tonight the team is hosting an annual salute to the military. Festivities include unfurling an enormous U.S. flag on the field during the national anthem. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.