Almost four years after he began protesting racial injustice and police brutality in America by sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games, Colin Kaepernick remains out of a job.
Kaepernick, now a 32-year-old free agent quarterback who hasn’t played in the NFL since the last week of the 2016 season, ended up spending six years with the 49ers before his peaceful protest led to his apparently getting blackballed by the league’s team owners. He remains a polarizing civil rights activist to this day even though he is no longer granted the platform of NFL quarterback.
Which is why Kaepernick’s name was immediately referenced when the NFL recently released what was digested as an empty statement on George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. Similar responses came when Kaepernick’s former team made its own statements on injustice amid global protests of Floyd’s death.
Four years ago, however, Kaepernick’s protests during the national anthem were much more of a societal wedge than similar demonstrations are today. In the days, weeks, months and years after Kaepernick first explained why he was protesting, trenches were occupied. Some understood and applauded Kaepernick’s efforts. Others failed to separate the cause of the protests from the method of protest and repeatedly chastised the quarterback.
Below is the timeline from then until now, an outline that details a crossfire of praise and ridicule aimed at Kaepernick over the last four years. It begins with the night his previously undetected protesting was noticed by a reporter.
MORE: Why did Colin Kaepernick kneel?
Colin Kaepernick kneeling timeline
Aug. 26, 2016 — Kaepernick, who at the time is entering his sixth NFL season, all with the 49ers, sits on the bench during the national anthem before San Francisco’s preseason home game against Green Bay. It’s not the first time he has sat during the anthem, but his action is noticed by reporters.
“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 tells NFL Media after the game. “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.”
Aug. 27, 2016 — The 49ers and the NFL issue statements on Kaepernick’s protest the night before. From the team: “The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”
From the league: “Players are encouraged but not required to stand during the playing of the national anthem.”
Aug. 30, 2016 — Former Seahawks player and Green Beret Nate Boyer writes an open letter to Kaepernick from the perspective of a supportive military member. The two meet in person a day later, and Boyer talks Kaepernick into changing his method of protest from sitting to kneeling during the national anthem out of respect.
“We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammates,” Boyer tells HBO. “Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.”
Sept. 1, 2016 — Kaepernick proceeds with his new method of protest, kneeling rather than sitting, before the 49ers’ final preseason game, a road contest against the Chargers. This time he is joined by San Francisco safety Eric Reid. This becomes the duo’s method of protest for the entire season.
Sept. 1, 2016 — After the Chargers game, Kaepernick pledges to donate $ 1 million of his 2016 salary to organizations he believes can help his cause. “The media painted this as I’m anti-American, anti-men and women of the military, and that’s not the case at all,” he says. “I realize that men and women of the military go out and sacrifice their lives and put themselves in harm’s way for my freedom of speech and my freedoms in this country, and my freedom to take a seat or take a knee. So I have the utmost respect for them. …
“The message is we have a lot of issues in this country that we need to deal with. We have a lot of people that are oppressed. We have a lot of people that aren’t treated equal, given equal opportunities. Police brutality is a huge thing that needs to be addressed. There are a lot of issues that need to be talked about, to be brought to life, and we need to fix those.”
Sept. 3, 2016 — First-year 49ers coach Chip Kelly gives Blaine Gabbert the starting QB job over Kaepernick, who is still recovering a pair of offseason surgeries (thumb, knee) on top of the shoulder surgery that ended his 2015 season. “I think (Gabbert’s) grasp and command of what we’re doing, I think he’s a good fit for what we want to get accomplished,” Kelly says. “I have a lot of confidence in what he can do with us offensively.”
Sept. 5, 2016 — President Barack Obama defends Kaepernick’s protest. “He’s exercising his constitutional right to make a statement,” Obama says at a news conference during the G20 summit in China. “I think there is a long history of sports figures doing so. I think there are a lot of ways you can do it when it comes to the flag and national anthem.”
Sept. 7, 2016 — NFL commissioner Roger Goodell breaks his silence and issues his first public comments on Kaepernick’s protests. “I don’t necessarily agree with what he is doing,” Goodell says, adding, “I support our players when they want to see change in society, and we don’t live in a perfect society. On the other hand, we believe very strongly in patriotism in the NFL. I personally believe very strongly in that.”
Sept. 11, 2016 — On the first Sunday of the 2016 season, many NFL players follow Kaepernick’s lead and protest racial injustice during the national anthem before their games.
Sept. 12, 2016 — Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump says Kaepernick and other players protesting during the national anthem should leave the country. “You know, you are talking about a major sport, maybe the major sport, and when you see that and it leads to a lot of other things,” Trump says. “I think it’s a great lack of respect and appreciation for our country and I really said they should try another country, see if they like it better. See how well they’ll be doing. See if they are going to be making $ 20 million being a second-string quarterback.”
Sept. 22, 2016 — Time Magazine puts Kaepernick on the cover of its Oct. 5 issue.
Sept. 27, 2016 — Kaepernick responds to Trump’s claim that the protests are “a lack of respect” for the United States. “He always says make America great again,” Kaepernick says of the presidential candidate. “Well America has never been great for people of color. That’s something that needs to be addressed. Let’s make America great for the first time.”
Oct. 7, 2016 — Kaepernick agrees to restructure his contract with the 49ers. The new deal eliminates his guaranteed money for 2017, voids the last three years of the contract and gives Kaepernick the right to opt out after 2016. Prior to the renegotiation, Kaepernick protects himself with a $ 7.5 million loss-of-value insurance policy.
Oct. 11, 2016 — Kelly announces Kaepernick will make his season debut as the 1-4 49ers’ starter in Week 6 against the Bills. He completes only 13 of 29 passes in a 45-16 loss but remains San Francisco’s starter the rest of the season.
Nov. 8, 2016 — Kaepernick chooses not to vote in the 2016 presidential election. “It was embarrassing to watch that these are our two candidates,” he says of Trump and Hillary Clinton. “Both are proven liars, and it almost seems like they’re trying to debate who’s less racist. And at this point … you have to pick the lesser of two evils. But in the end, it’s still evil.”
Dec. 4, 2016 — Kaepernick gets benched by Kelly in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Bears that drops the 49ers to 1-11. He starts again the following week against the Jets.
March 1, 2017 — Kaepernick’s agents tell NFL teams he will opt out of his contract with the 49ers. The move comes two months after Kelly and general manager Trent Baalke were fired by San Francisco and eventually replaced by new coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch. Previous reports had indicated the 49ers planned to release Kaepernick had he not opted out.
March 18, 2017 — The signings of lesser QBs in NFL free agency contribute to the suspicion that Kaepernick is being blackballed by NFL teams. Bleacher Report publishes a story on how NFL front-office types still want nothing to do with him after his protests during the national anthem.
June 5, 2017 — The Seahawks, a team that was interested in signing Kaepernick, instead add Austin Davis to the roster. “Colin’s been a fantastic football player and he’s going to continue to be,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll says a couple days prior. “At this time, we didn’t do anything with it. We know where he is, who he is and we had a chance to understand him much more so. He’s a starter in this league and I can’t imagine somebody won’t give him a chance to play.”
July 31, 2017 — With his team considering signing Kaepernick, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti asks people to pray for his franchise. “I know that we’re going to upset some people, and I know that we’re going to make people happy that we stood up for somebody that has the right to do what he did,” Bisciotti says. “Non-violent protesting is something that we have all embraced. I don’t like the way he did it. Personally, I kind of liked it a lot when he went from sitting to kneeling. I don’t know, I’m Catholic — we spend a lot of time kneeling.”
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh confirms the team has been in contact with Kaepernick.
Aug. 25, 2017 — A year after Kaepernick’s first protest, hundreds of his supporters stage a rally outside the NFL’s headquarters in New York. “We believe that the NFL has been complicit in the ostracization of Colin Kaepernick,” says Symone Sanders, a Democratic strategist and CNN political analyst. “And today, it is time for the NFL to take a stand.”
Sept. 22, 2017 — Trump tells a group of supporters in Alabama that players who protest during the national anthem should be fired: “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.”
Sept. 24, 2017 — A couple days after Trump says players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired, players from numerous teams protest en masse, with members of several teams remaining in the locker room while the anthem is played. That same day, Trump encourages fans to stop going to NFL games until players “stop disrespecting our Flag & Country.”
Sept. 26, 2017 — As protests during the national anthem continue at NFL games, President Trump says Goodell should have suspended Kaepernick, who remains unsigned. Trump also tweets the following: “The NFL has all sorts of rules and regulations. The only way out for them is to set a rule that you can’t kneel during our National Anthem!”
Sept. 26, 2017 — Cowboys owner Jerry Jones locks arms and kneels with players before the playing of the national anthem on a Monday night in Arizona. He and the players then stand for the actual anthem.
Oct. 8, 2017 — Vice president Mike Pence attends a Colts vs. 49ers game in Indianapolis but leaves after players protest during the national anthem. “(President Trump) and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem,” Pence tweets, later adding, “At a time when so many Americans are inspiring our nation with their courage, resolve, and resilience, now, more than ever, we should rally around our Flag and everything that unites us. While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don’t think it’s too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem.”
Oct. 8, 2017 — Kaepernick confirms to CBS he still wants to play in the NFL and is working out every day in preparation of an opportunity.
Oct. 15, 2017 — Kaepernick hires attorney Mark Geragos and files a grievance under the CBA for collusion against NFL owners. The filing states that NFL team owners “have colluded to deprive Mr. Kaepernick of employment rights in retaliation for Mr. Kaepernick’s leadership and advocacy for equality and social justice and his bringing awareness to peculiar institutions still undermining racial equality in the United States.”
Geragos says the grievance was filed “only after pursuing every possible avenue with all NFL teams and their executives.”
Dec. 6, 2017 — Beyonce makes a surprise appearance to hand Kaepernick the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award at Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year ceremony. “With or without the NFL’s platform, I will continue to work for the people,” Kaepernick says.
March 15, 2018 — Another free agency period opens and plays out without Kaepernick receiving an offer to sign with a team.
April 18, 2018 — With Kaepernick present, his attorneys depose Goodell at the NFL’s headquarters. Also sitting for depositions at various points in the grievance process are high-profile NFL names like Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Broncos general manager John Elway and Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
May 2, 2018 — After Reid goes through the first waves of free agency unsigned, the NFLPA files a grievance on the safety’s behalf. Reid is being represented by Kaepernick’s attorney.
May 23, 2018 — The NFL announces a new rule against kneeling during the national anthem. It gives players the option of staying in the locker room, instead. “We want people to be respectful to the national anthem,” Goodell says. “We want people to stand. That’s all personnel, and make sure they treat this moment in a respectful fashion. That’s something we think we owe. We have been very sensitive in making sure we give players choices, but we do believe that that moment is important and one we are going to focus on.”
A day later, Trump praises the league’s new anthem stance.
Aug. 3, 2018 — Users realize Kaepernick’s name has been edited out of a song on the soundtrack of EA Sports’ “Madden NFL 19,” evidently for the second year in a row. His name is eventually added back to the song in the game.
Aug. 9, 2018 — The NFL releases a statement that announces players will not be disciplined for protesting during the national anthem despite the league’s policy: “The NFL has been engaged in constructive discussions with the NFL Players Association regarding the anthem and issues of equality and social justice that are of concern to many Americans. While those discussions continue, the NFL has agreed to delay implementing or enforcing any club work rules that could result in players being disciplined for their conduct during the performance of the anthem.
“Meanwhile, there has been no change in the NFL’s policy regarding the national anthem. The anthem will continue to be played before every game, and all player and non-player personnel on the field at that time are expected to stand during the presentation of the flag and performance of the anthem. Personnel who do not wish to do so can choose to remain in the locker room.”
Aug. 30, 2018 — The NFL’s request for a summary judgment dismissing Kaepernick’s grievance is rejected by an independent arbitrator, allowing the case to move forward to trial.
Sept. 3, 2018 — Nike uses Kaepernick as the face of an ad campaign. The reactions range from applause to burning shoes.
Sept. 27, 2018 — Kaepernick congratulates Reid on being signed by the Panthers. “Congratulations to my brother, an All-Pro safety who should have been signed the first day of free agency, who has signed a football contract,” Kaepernick writes on Instagram. “He has was the FIRST person to kneel alongside me. Eric is a social justice warrior, continues to support his wife, two beautiful daughters and communities in need.”
Feb. 15, 2019 — Kaepernick and Reid reach settlements in their collusion grievances against the NFL. “For the past several months, counsel for Mr. Kaepernick and Mr. Reid have engaged in an ongoing dialogue with representatives of the NFL,” attorney Mark Geragos and the NFL say in a joint statement. “As a result of those discussions, the parties have decided to resolve the pending grievances. The resolution of this matter is subject to a confidentiality agreement so there will be no further comment by any party.”
March 21, 2019 — The Wall Street Journal reports the NFL paid less than $ 10 million to settle the grievances of Kaepernick and Reid.
Aug. 8, 2019 — Kaepernick sends message to NFL teams when he tweets an intense workout video. “Five a.m. Five days a week. For three years. Still ready,” he says in the tweet.
Aug. 9, 2019 — Asked about Kaepernick’s message the day before, Trump claims he would “love to see” the QB back in the NFL. “Only if he’s good enough,” Trump says. “If he was good enough, they’d hire him. Why wouldn’t he play if he was good enough? I think if he’s good enough, I know the owners – I know (Patriots owner Robert) Kraft, I know so many of the owners — if he’s good enough, they’d sign him. I know these people. They would sign him in a heartbeat. They would do anything they can to win games. So I’d like to see it.”
Oct. 9, 2019 — Citing Kaepernick, Rihanna confirms she turned down a chance to be the Super Bowl 54 halftime performer. “I couldn’t dare do that,” she tells Vogue. “For what? Who gains from that? Not my people. I just couldn’t be a sellout. I couldn’t be an enabler. There’s things within that organization that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way.”
Nov. 13, 2019 — ESPN reports the NFL has arranged a workout for Kaepernick so teams can assess his “readiness” and “level of interest” in a potential return to the league. Kaepernick receives word of the workout in Atlanta just a few days ahead of time, but he expresses his excitement “to see the head coaches and GMs” who might attend.
After the league apparently reverses course on sending Kaepernick a list of team officials would attend the workout, Reid among others becomes suspicious of the NFL’s motives. “It’s disingenuous,” Reid says. “They want the appearance of giving Colin a chance, but they give him two hours’ notice and tell (him) it has to be on a Saturday when they know decision-makers are traveling. So is this real? We’ll see.”
Nov. 18, 2019 — On the morning of the workout, Kaepernick and his representatives decide to move the location on short notice. Kaepernick’s camp says it changed venues because the NFL was not allowing for full transparency (specifically, media access and suitable video recording) at the Falcons’ facility. Kaepernick also objected to the non-standard injury waiver the league wanted him to sign. Only some of the team representatives who came to watch Kaepernick follow him from the Falcons’ facility in Flowery Branch, Ga., to the field at Charles R. Drew High School in Riverdale, Ga.
“I’ve been ready for three years. I’ve been denied for three years,” Kaepernick says after the workout at the new location. “We all know why. I came out there and showed it today in front of everybody. Stop running from the truth. Stop running from the people.”
May 29, 2020 — Kaepernick defends protests after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police. “When civility leads to death, revolting is the only logical reaction,” Kaepernick says. “The cries for peace will rain down, and when they do, they will land on deaf ears, because your violence has brought this resistance. We have the right to fight back! Rest in power George Floyd.”
May 30, 2020 — The NFL releases a statement on the death of Floyd and the ensuing global protests, and the league winds up with heavy doses of Kaepernick in its mentions, with many of the reactions in the vein of, “You could have led the fight against police brutality and racial injustice four years ago, but instead you worked against peaceful protesters like Kaepernick.” The 49ers get a similar reminder when they participate in Black Tuesday.
June 5, 2020 — Goodell offers another statement, this time via video, after the NFL is called out by a group of star players requesting a more sincere response. “We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” Goodell says. Many criticize Goodell for not specifically mentioning Kaepernick’s name.