Political football has a whole new meaning since 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem.
It’s not just the moneyed NFL players expressing their frustration over police brutality and racism in America, the protests are appearing under the glare of Friday night lights.
High school football just got political.
In Seattle, it wasn’t just the players but Garfield High School’s entire team, coaches and all who took a knee as the anthem blared.
It was a decision made after lengthy discussions about the racial injustices they’ve witnessed across America. Similar to Kaepernick’s stance, the coach dispelled the idea that the protest was against American troops.
“We respect people in the armed forces, the Army, the Navy. We can’t say anything clearer than that. This is not a disrespectful movement. And I think that’s kind of a smokescreen not to deal with the issues,” Coach Joey Thomas said.
Several players on the opposing team took a knee as well, even some people in the stands.
‘All season until we see a change’
In West Virginia, three girls on the WVU tech volleyball team took a knee to take a stand on the issue and support Kaepernick’s right to protest..
When the Star-Spangled Banner blared out from the football field in San Mateo, CA, the San Francisco Mission High School football players gathered together and all but one took a knee.
The player left standing held his fist in the air just as gold medalist Tommie Smith and Bronze medalist John Carlos did during the 1968 Olympics.
Smith and Carlos were sent home from the Olympics for politicizing the games but the Mission High football players say they’re not going to stop.
“All season until we see a change we’re going to keep on challenging people to join us,” Cheko Wells said.
Wells says they are doing it not only to support Kaepernick, but to highlight what they say are injustices that must change. They realize their actions will be criticized as well as praised.
“We do think about the consequences that can happen after the game, I’m going to get boos and negative energy,” Wells said. “But it’s like it really don’t matter. If it’s right, then its right.”
Kaepernick’s hometown, divided
Two hours drive northwest of the Mission High Football Game, the scene and sentiment were much different on the field where Kaepernick’s alma mater, Pittman High, was about to take the field.
All the members of the football team stood stick straight, hands over hearts, facing the flag. No one even leaned, never mind taking a knee.
In Kaepernick’s hometown of Turlock, CA, their native son’s protest has sparked emotionally-charged conversation.
“I think it was really disrespectful. And I think uh, I think he’s an idiot,” resident Joshua Smith said as he drove by in his work truck.
At Main Street Footers hotdog eatery, the Kaepernick dog or KC7 as it was also known, has been stricken from the menu.
Just as creating the Kaepernick hotdog was a business decision that worked wonders for publicity, co-owner Glenn Newsum said, taking it off the menu was also a business decision.
“One of the nice things about our country is you get to make choices but we didn’t want to become a political football. We could already see it was going to develop that way,” Newsum said.
Just up the street at Jura’s Pizza Parlor, Kaepernick’s jersey still sits where it has for several years. The owner, Papiola Aghassi, says it’s not coming down even after some customers demanded just that.
She has lost a couple of customers over it. One couple got up to leave, informing her they were doing it because a family member served in the military and died for the country.
“We’ve been in this community a really long time and tried to serve it well. So it hurt a little bit.”
Wearing a sparkling black and gold Dancing with the Turlock Stars’ T-shirt, one of the big fundraisers in town Aghassi supports, she said, “Loyalty means something in Turlock. And I’m going to be loyal to the hometown boy.”
She is quick to point out that she doesn’t support his method of protest but she will not turn her back on him. It is his right as an American.
‘There are three camps’
Frankie Tovar used to play against Colin Kaepernick from Pop Warner football all the way through high school.
‘We weren’t close friends but from what I saw he’s a good guy. Not known for partying hard or anything like that. He was very driven,” Tovar said.
Tovar came back from college to become a sports reporter in the town and is now a multimedia journalist for the Turlock Journal. He knows this town and its sporting culture.
“There are three camps when it comes to Colin. Those who wholeheartedly support Colin, they believe in his message and method. Others say they agree with his message but not his method. And then of course there’s the group of people who don’t agree with him on any level,” Tovar said.
Turlock resident and Navy veteran Veronica Mora recoiled as she sat at Jura’s Pizza Parlor, remembering the first time Kaepernick stayed seated during the national anthem.
“I was very disgusted and disappointed. It hurt. It hurt. I believe in the flag. I believe in the United States of America,” Mora said.
There are residents in his hometown who support Kaepernick and think he’s just trying to make America a more just place. Those we talked to didn’t want their name printed in an article.
“It’s generated a discussion and I think that’s what he wanted. So I mean in that essence I think he’s got what he’s going for,” Tovar said.
Census Bureau numbers show Turlock’s population is more than 50% white, nearly 40% Hispanic, and less than 2% African-American. Its economy is still very much tied to agriculture. Fields of almond trees surround the city. With about 72,000 people and growing, the downtown still has a small town feel. Friendly people, and mom and pop shops, still reign here.
A state college brings in students from far and wide.
For those who say Kaepernick isn’t the same guy he was when he lived in Turlock, Tovar says they’re right. He’s evolved and changed just like most of us do from high school to adulthood.
What surprised his old high school football rival wasn’t the fact that Kaepernick protested because he says Kaepernick’s instagram over the years gave you a glimpse into his social stance.
What surprised him is that Kaepernick was willing to take such a public stand and face intense scrutiny and backlash.
“Most athletes wouldn’t want to do that,” Tovar said.