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Why is Colin Kaepernick absent from this political ‘Sports Illustrated’ cover?

Kaepernick's presence inside the magazine is just as scarce.


Samantha Grasso


Posted on Sep 26, 2017   Updated on May 22, 2021, 4:12 pm CDT

This past weekend, players across the NFL took a knee, linked arms, or sat down during the national anthem in a show of solidarity against President Donald Trump’s verbal attacks on players who had previously done so—namely, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who Trump indirectly referred to as a “son of a bitch.”

Looking at Sports Illustrated‘s latest cover for its Oct. 2 issue, however, readers wouldn’t know that Kaepernick’s silent protest had been the spark that ignited Trump‘s flames and united the NFL. He was nowhere to be found.

Among the players and sports figures featured in the collage are Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan, Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry, Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James, and Los Angeles Sparks’ Candace Parker. The cover also includes NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who released a three-sentence statement on the league’s unification.

While the magazine’s art directors may have felt it was the right move to swap Kaepernick for less politically active, more famous sports personalities, the internet took notice.

Some saw Kaepernick’s exclusion as a metaphor for how his movement has been co-opted by the NFL to stand up against Trump’s attack of the institution, instead of standing up for Black people who face racial injustice.

Others attempted to use the cover’s omission to reintroduce Kaepernick’s original intention in kneeling during the national anthem: to bring attention to police brutality against Black people and people of color.

The article linked to the Sports Illustrated cover tweet, “Athletes Are Not Going to ‘Stick to Sports’ and That’s an Admirably American Thing,” was published Monday, and addresses the role politics have in American sports. Namely, writer Charles Pierce theorizes that if we’re going to have the national anthem played during sports games, we’ll always have political statements that further politicize sports.

In his piece, Pierce does address Kaepernick’s overall absence from this resurgence of his own protest, and how the NFL has co-opted his symbol of protest in order to silently stand up against criticism from the president while staying far away from any mention of police brutality:

“The NFL power structure chose a relatively anodyne approach to the whole matter. It enabled the league to stay away from the issue that prompted the protests in the first place, the issue that very likely has kept Kaepernick from getting a job. Those same owners, along with commissioner Roger Goodell, don’t want any part of the issue of why African-Americans end up dead on the pavement after traffic stops and other encounters with police officers. But ultimately the owners and commissioners may not have a choice: The real issue behind the protests has been out there all along.”

Other cover stories from this edition of the magazine mention Kaepernick but fail to note the intentions of his protest versus the intentions of the new protests exhibited by players, coaches, and team owners, or vice versa. The magazine’s essay from Warriors coach Steve Kerr, responding to Trump’s withdrawal of the team’s invitation to the White House, mentions police brutality, but has omitted Kaepernick altogether.

A sixth cover feature by writer Jonathan Jones titled, “A Gesture of Support by NFL Owners Is Meaningless Without Them Taking Real Action,” partially makes up for the lack of Kaepernick by bringing to light the core criticisms brought against the cover collage: that these arm-in-arm protests by NFL owners such as Khan are part of a unity charade that does little to advance the agendas for which national anthem protests were originally about:

“If anything, the linked arms appear to be a sign of solidarity against President Donald Trump, a man with no north star who has a history of inserting himself into conversations that do not include him. But Kaepernick’s protest isn’t about Trump or the flag but about racism and inequality; Trump perverted this to make it all about him.”

The magazine’s near-omission of Kaepernick isn’t unfounded, however, and appears to be an active decision from the top. In a Sports Illustrated video, executive editor Stephen Cannella said they wanted to capture both the weekend’s division and the enduring message of unity. While Kaepernick isn’t literally represented on the cover, Cannella argued, his legacy is. Contradicting Pierce’s article on how the mission of this weekend’s protest no longer resembles that of Kaepernick’s, Cannella went on to say that these new voices of protest, like Goodell and Khan, are now “brothers” in Kaepernick’s movement.

“In some ways even though his picture’s not there, Colin Kaepernick is there, I think we all know that. Colin Kaepernick, for lack of a better word, was ‘looming’ over many things this past weekend and looms over many issues in society right now. I thought what we were trying to capture in this cover was the way new voices emerged this weekend and the way this debate, this issue, this protest movement, has sort of evolved even beyond Colin Kaepernick,” Cannella said. “Colin Kaepernick is on that cover, even if his face isn’t and his name aren’t there. We all know who stands behind this movement. We all know who got it started. Colin Kaepernick has many more brothers today than he did a week ago.”

Perhaps the Sports Illustrated staff may remember whose ideas initially fueled President Trump’s insults, but it wouldn’t hurt to remind new “allies” of Kaepernick’s motives, too.

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*First Published: Sep 26, 2017, 3:29 pm CDT