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’s been five years since then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick (in)famously kneeled during the national anthem in protest of the systemic oppression of Black people and people of color in the US. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick famously explained. “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.”
In his new book, The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World, author Dave Zirin explores the historical valences of Kaepernick’s game-changing protest—from the long tradition of athletes making powerful political statements that preceded Kaepernick to the many athletes who have been inspired by Kaepernick and are carrying on that tradition today. In this installment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc talks with Zirin about his new book and the political and cultural significance of “The Kaepernick Effect.” Dave Zirin is the sports editor for The Nation, where he also hosts The Nation’s Edge of Sports podcast. Along with The Kaepernick Effect, he is the author of ten books on the politics of sports and a frequent guest on ESPN, MSNBC, and Democracy Now!
Tune in for new segments of The Marc Steiner Show every Tuesday and Friday on TRNN
TRANSCRIPTMarc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner and it’s great to have you on with us once again. We all know by now this term, taking a knee. Colin Kaepernick and hundreds of others are taking the knee, saying no to oppression, taking a knee on George Floyd’s neck, watching Derek Chauvin’s knee choking the life out of another Black person in this country, taking a knee to protest racism and oppression. It’s not the same as taking a knee to yield, to be knighted, to oppress. He’s taking a knee to stand up. And our guest today, Dave Zirin, a friend, colleague, who I’ve interviewed numerous times over the years has written a new book called The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World. And Dave, welcome back. Good to have you with us.
Dave Zirin: Marc, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
Marc Steiner: So it really is true. I mean, this idea of taking a knee.
Dave Zirin: Yeah.
Marc Steiner: And what your book did, and we’ll get in some specifics about it shortly, but it’s the idea of how what Colin Kaepernick did has spread. It’s become a symbol. It’s become a piece of what people do to say, “Enough is enough.” And I had no idea until I read this how pervasive it was across the country.
Dave Zirin: Absolutely. And it’s completely universal, Marc. I mean, if I was in any city, in any setting, whether it was a town county fair or whether it was an NFL game, and the anthem played and I chose to take a knee everybody around me would immediately know what it was in reference to. No one would think I had lost a contact lens [Marc laughs]. No one would think I was saying a prayer. They would say, “Oh, that’s a protest. That’s a protest against racial inequity and police brutality. And that is a protest about the gap between what we’re told this country represents and the lived experiences of far too many people.” That’s the power of the knee.
And in my book, what I write about are all the people who when they saw Colin Kaepernick take that knee in August, oh no I’m sorry, September of 2016, when they saw him do that they immediately said, “Okay, that is a method that I can replicate. And I can use that as a way to show my town, my school, my community that enough is enough.”
Marc Steiner: So what can I say? I just want to say to you again and say to all of our listeners, I’ve interview you for a lot of your books over the years, a lot of them. We’ve had lots of other conversations as well. This is without a doubt I think the best book you’ve ever written.
Dave Zirin: That’s very kind of you. Thank you, Marc.
Marc Steiner: And just the way these stories hold together, and they can tell a tale that we have to wrestle with and understand. So I just want to take a step away for just a second. And tell us a bit about this book and how you did it. I mean, you interviewed people across America: high school kids, college athletes, professional athletes. I mean, how did you approach this? How did you do it?
Dave Zirin: I mean, if it’s okay for me to filibuster for a second [inaudible] [Marc laughs]. It’s interesting, and I think you, Marc, would find this very interesting. I was speaking with 1968 Olympian John Carlos. I wrote John Carlos’s book with him. We’ve stayed very close friends. And so we were just chewing the fat a couple years ago, and John said to me, “After I raised my fist in Mexico City at those Olympics, I heard that there were all these track meets around the country where young people were raising their fist too.” And the amateur historian in me just had synapses in my brain just blow up like, “Who were these people? How did it affect their lives?” I’ve never seen that written in any text about the ’68 Olympics, about the effect that it had on young people, particularly young athletes.
And it made me think very, very hard about all the young people that I’d read about who’d taken a knee after Colin Kaepernick. And I’d only read about it, say, in an Associated Press story here, a Nation article there. There would be articles about maybe these individual cases, individual schools, but I was feeling that what was going to be memory holed was going to be, in other words, absolutely chopped out of the historical memory, was going to be the fact that Colin Kaepernick’s knee had an effect, a chain reaction that was felt in schools across the country and at the professional levels as well. So I wanted to save them from being memory holed, save those stories. That was sort of the part one, and that’s how I sold the book to The New Press. And I started working on it at the start of the pandemic.
But the mission of the book changed dramatically for me after Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. And we had the breaking out of the largest protest literally in the history of the United States. And it made me realize, wow, many roads led us to the summer of 2020, but one of them runs straight through the athletic fields of the United States and that story needs to be told.
Marc Steiner: I actually was not aware until I read the book of the numbers of people that actually did this in high schools and colleges and how it affects athletes who are in the Olympics and professional athletes, and how they were all affected by this.
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