Teammates’ reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s protest is not what you would expect

If outsiders strode into the 49ers’ locker room to find an anti-Colin Kaepernick sentiment, they would find it. Conversely, if someone wanted to find those in support of Kaepernick, they would find that too.

Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel for the national  anthem (Getty images).

Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel for the national anthem (Getty images).

Those are two of the conclusions drawn from an attempt to ask every 49ers player about their thoughts on Kaepernick and his stand for justice after his decision to kneel for the national anthem. Kaepernick, along with safety Eric Reid and linebacker Eli Harold, kneel during the playing of the national anthem before each game, mainly because they believe the United States doesn’t stand for justice for all.
Instances of police brutality and unequal treatment in the criminal justice system of people of color make the protest worth staging for Reid, Harold and Kaepernick. Fellow teammates Mike Davis, Rashard Robinson, Antoine Bethea and Jaquiski Tarrt stand with raised fists as gestures of protest for the same issues.
So what about the other players on the team? What do they believe?
My canvass of players is about halfway through and I typically ask the same questions:

-Do you believe Kaepernick’s stance is courageous?
-Has it brought the team closer together?
-Have you, or someone you know, been subjected to police brutality?

Players seem to generally fall into three groups:

GROUP A: This group supports Kaepernick. They laud his courage, and speak eloquently on the inequality that persists between white communities and neighborhoods of color. This group is also inclined to believe that Kaepernick’s protest and the discussions it has spawned in the locker room have contributed to team unity.

GROUP B: This group tends to want to distance themselves from the protest. They talk about “compartmentalizing” the issue while stopping short of using the “D” word – Distraction. Players in this group might taut players’ rights to protest, but wouldn’t consider doing it themselves.

GROUP C: This group is mainly comprised of young players who simply believe there’s no room in their lives for protest. They just want to stay on the team and perform well.

Some players’ responses hit on more than one category, and while black players tend to hew more towards group A, with white players more likely to be in group B, that’s not always the case.
For example, tight end Vance McDonald, a white player from Texas, is firmly entrenched in group one.
When asked if he believed Kaepernick’s stance was courageous, McDonald said, “There’s not a lot of people who are willing to go out on a limb and stand up for something so significant and powerful.”
On the question of whether the protest has tightened the team, McDonald said, “From my point of view, I’ve never thought of it as a distraction, because it gets guys talking and it builds culture for us. I said this before, if we came in and talked about football the whole time, we would just be robots. It doesn’t build a championship team either. At some point you have to go beyond just names and ‘Hi how are you doing?” to where do you stand on anything. It gets the locker room talking.”
Conversely, linebacker NaVorro Bowman, a black man from a tough neighborhood near Washington D.C., would be more in group B or group C.
Far from bringing the team together, Bowman viewed Kaepernick’s protest as possibly divisive.
“We support Colin. We don’t think he’s a bad teammate because he decided to voice his opinion on such a strong topic,” Bowman said. “But we can’t allow this … to divide our team.”
Bowman, who is probably the most respected member of the team also said, “My thing is, I wake up every day blessed and thankful to play in the NFL. And I don’t want to step into that box yet. I just want to focus on my career.”
Unlike McDonald, Bowman seemed wary of the protest and it’s potential to set players against one another.
Much more will be revealed now that Kaepernick is once again the starting quarterback and as the protest takes on a shape of its own, which seems to happen almost daily.
My goal is to cover this protest as it happens and as it grows out of the confines of the 49ers locker room. It should be quite a ride.

Twitter: @klynch49

Kevin Lynch

Kevin Lynch is in his 27th season covering the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers and Bay Area sports. He also is a guest radio host and pregame 49ers host on KNBR-AM San Francisco - the flagship station for the 49ers, San Francisco Giants, and Stanford football and basketball. Working mainly for sfgate.com, the San Francisco Chronicle's web site, Lynch is expanding into sports' biggest questions and hottest debates such as - LBGTQ acceptance, athlete criminality, the ethics of performance-enhancing drugs, marijuana, locker room culture, sports and gender, sports and sex, sports and money, sports and race, sports and social change and many other issues. He has written editorials on LBGTQ resistance in sports for the Chronicle and has appeared on KQED radio, Comcast Sports Bay Area and ESPN's Outside the Lines to talk about a variety of sports topics. He completed a Master's in Sociology at San Jose State in 2015, which included a thesis on LBGtT Resistant Attitudes and Behaviors in Sports.

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