Eight days after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick dropped to his knee as the national anthem was played before a Sept. 1 NFL preseason game in San Diego, Preston Brown gathered the Woodrow Wilson High School football team on their practice field nearly 3,000 miles away in Camden, N.J. Like his young, mostly African-American players, Brown grew up in the ailing city outside Philadelphia, and its bleak statistics–52% of kids below the poverty line, a college-graduation rate under 9%–left a lasting mark. “Come and experience some of the things these kids have to go through,” says Brown. “We’re hurting, we’re in pain. We see injustices.”
So on Sept. 9, one day before Woodrow Wilson’s first game of the season, the coach stood on the field and announced that he planned to follow Kaepernick’s lead and kneel during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. The players were welcome, but not required, to join him. All but two did.
They were far from alone. In the weeks since Kaepernick began his protest, athletes across the country have taken a knee, locked arms or raised a fist during the anthem. The movement has spread from NFL Sundays to college-football Saturdays to the Friday-night lights of high school games and even trickled down into the peewee ranks, where a youth team in Texas decided they, too, needed to take a stand by kneeling.
By the third week of the NFL season, the protests had been echoed on volleyball courts in West Virginia, football fields in Nebraska and at a baseball stadium in Oakland, Calif., where a school band knelt during its performance of the anthem before the A’s played the Houston Astros. And on Sept. 15, the movement reached the international stage when Megan Rapinoe, an openly gay member of the U.S. women’s soccer team, kneeled for the anthem before a match against Thailand.
“I thought a lot about it, read a lot about it and just felt, How can I not kneel too?” Rapinoe tells TIME. “I know what it’s like to look at the flag and not have all your rights.”
All challenges to the social order provoke strong reactions, but these protests have been particularly divisive. “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been a ritual before American sporting events since World War II, as professional leagues have made a concerted effort to associate their brand with love of country. None has done so with more fervor than the NFL, whose product is the most-watched sport in America. For many fans, Kaepernick’s act of defiance was more than an unwelcome intrusion of politics into their leisure time–it was a rejection of the nation itself. Military veterans called the protesters unpatriotic, police unions threatened to stop providing security at NFL games, and Donald Trump suggested that Kaepernick could find another country to call home. Kaepernick has reported receiving death threats. In the fever pitch of social media, even the youngest protesters were called the N word and threatened with lynching, while far more reasoned critics supported the message but took issue with the medium.
“I would not challenge our flag,” NFL Hall of Famer and civil rights activist Jim Brown tells TIME. “I would not do anything that has to do with respecting the flag or the national anthem. I don’t think it’s appropriate.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that in the final months of one of the most divisive presidential campaigns in memory, even communal refuges would turn into cultural battlegrounds. For decades, professional athletes have been counseled by coaches, agents and other advisers to avoid controversy. Doing otherwise could jeopardize lucrative endorsement deals or their hard-won place on the team. But that mind-set has begun to change in recent years. Spurred by the death of Trayvon Martin and the fatal shootings of unarmed African Americans, players in the NBA and NFL–both leagues made up predominantly of black men, many from underserved backgrounds–have started to speak out in ways that recall an earlier generation of activist-athletes.
The first steps were tentative–a tweet of solidarity with Black Lives Matter, a photo of players in hoodies. But as the debate over equality, opportunity and the treatment of minorities in America grew into a national concern, the stances have gotten stronger, the gestures bolder. And so when Kaepernick used his perch to question whether the nation was living up to its ideals, a silent protest was primed to make a big noise.
The catalyst for this unlikely culture war was supposed to have had a quiet season. Raised by white adoptive parents in Turlock, Calif., Kaepernick starred at the University of Nevada before leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013. But injuries derailed his fledgling career, and the former franchise star with a $114 million contract found himself relegated to a backup role. Off the field, Kaepernick’s interest in the world beyond football appeared to grow, with his social-media feeds reflecting a rising concern about social-justice issues, particularly the fatal shootings of African Americans by police. After another fraught summer of racial violence, Kaepernick decided that the time was right to use a platform available to few others.
At first, not many people noticed when he sat on the bench in street clothes during the national anthem. But in the third preseason game, on Aug. 26, Kaepernick sat down while in uniform. Asked about it later by a reporter for NFL.com, he didn’t flinch: “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 said. “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.”
The criticism came hard and fast. Steve King, a Republican Congressman from Iowa, said that Kaepernick was “undermining patriotism” and that his activism was “sympathetic to ISIS.” The Santa Clara, Calif., police union threatened to boycott 49ers games. A mattress store in suburban Chicago turned his jersey into a doormat. “I don’t want him anywhere near my team,” an anonymous NFL executive told Bleacher Report. “He’s a traitor.”
An exchange with Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret who briefly played in the NFL, prompted Kaepernick to modify his protest from sitting out to taking a knee as a way to acknowledge the significance of the anthem while still making his point clear. The change only complicated the debate. Kneeling is an act of humility, a way to diminish the self in the presence of something larger. Doing so before the national anthem can turn its performance from a rote observance into a deeper examination of its meaning. “He has established a posture of saying he’s down on his knees pleading for America to live up to its preachments,” says the Rev. Amos Brown, a civil rights leader in San Francisco. “And if people in this nation can’t get it and don’t like it, it reflects how racist, how unkind, how narrow, how xenophobic and how sick-souled they are.”
Plenty of measured critics say Kaepernick has chosen the wrong venue for his protest. “For those who don’t like standing because they disagree with what America has done, stand and pay it forward for what you think America should do,” retired Army General Martin Dempsey wrote in USA Today.
Others think the stage could not be better suited. The anthem’s lyrics–an ode to America’s promise, along with questions about whether it’s living up to it–can be read both as a tribute to the nation’s ideals and an invitation to challenge them. And doing the latter before an audience of millions watching on TV is a particularly bold act, says John Carlos, a former track-and-field star whose own protest on the medal platform at the 1968 Olympics was seen by some as a similar affront. “Where else is he going to make a statement where he’s going to reach the far ends of the earth?” Carlos says.
A number of NFL players have taken up Kaepernick’s cause. On Sept. 1, his teammate Eric Reid knelt alongside him while Seattle Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane sat out in solidarity. Soon a group text-message chain formed among more than 70 NFL players debating how they should respond. Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall knelt during the anthem on Sept. 8, the NFL’s opening night–a stance that cost him two endorsement deals. Three days later, on the 15th anniversary of Sept. 11, four members of the Miami Dolphins knelt, and Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Marcus Peters raised his fist during the song, while New England Patriots Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty did the same after the anthem was finished. “If you see something you feel is wrong in society, why not help out? Why not try to raise awareness?” says McCourty.
On Sept. 19, the same day that Tulsa, Okla., police released footage of an officer killing Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man whose hands were up, Philadelphia Eagles players raised their fists during the anthem on Monday Night Football. “We’re not doing this made-up thing to get attention,” Malcolm Jenkins, one of the Eagles who protested, tells TIME. “Real lives are being lost. Real communities are being affected. The negativity comes from people’s unwillingness to digest the hard truth.”
That truth has been apparent to the athletes on college and high school teams across the country who have joined in. “Police come to your community, and they chase you around,” says Niamey Harris, the 17-year-old captain and quarterback for San Francisco’s Mission High School, who suggested that his team begin kneeling. “I feel like they treat you like you’re an intruder or something, like you’re not supposed to be here, and that’s not how I want to live the rest of my life. That’s not right.”
Similar concerns motivated the young players on the Beaumont, Texas, Bulls. “Their fear was, ‘O.K., we’re cute little boys now, but in a few years we’re going to be looked at as black men,'” says April Parkerson, whose son Jaelun, 11, is a running back on the team. “And the statistics that come along with that are quite scary.” The parents say they expected a backlash but weren’t prepared for the N word to be flung at their preteen sons. “The coaches need to be lynched,” one person wrote on the team’s Facebook page, Parkerson said. “Kill them all,” wrote another.
The angry reactions have so far had the opposite effect, helping to recruit more athletes to the cause. “I did it because I feel like people are doubting Colin, saying that if he hates America, he can leave,” says West Virginia University Institute of Technology senior Keyonna Morrow, 21, who knelt with two volleyball teammates before a Sept. 7 game. “But really expressing his First Amendment right to choose to sit or stand, I think that was him showing how much he loves America.”
It has been nearly half a century since athletes waded this deeply into such charged territory. In the 1960s, many black athletes fought alongside political leaders during the civil rights movement. But there have always been consequences for sticking one’s neck out. Muhammad Ali lost the prime of his career after refusing to fight in Vietnam, and Carlos and fellow American sprinter Tommie Smith were suspended after raising their black-gloved fists in the air as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics.
While athletes including tennis players Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King continued the fight for racial and gender equality in the ’70s, a message, particularly in team sports, began to take hold: Say little and offend no one. Be grateful for the opportunities you have. Doing otherwise could cost a player dearly, especially as the value of contracts and endorsement deals grew.
“The agents tell these young people that you can get endorsements, you can get a lot of money, don’t rock the boat,” says Jim Brown, who was among a group of athletes who supported Ali in his fight against the draft. “Money becomes the objective, and individuals protect their image, make sure they have the right image so that they can represent corporations. And now what is happening is there seems to be a reversal.”
According to former NBA player Baron Davis, attitudes began to shift during the 2008 election as high-wattage stars waded into politics to support Barack Obama. Players like Chris Paul and Grant Hill endorsed him, and LeBron James co-hosted a rally for the candidate with Jay Z in October 2008. “That election made athletes choose sides,” says Davis.
The engagement deepened in 2012, when the killing of Trayvon Martin prompted James, Dwyane Wade and other Miami Heat players to post a photo of themselves wearing hoodies. Then came the 2014 deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice at the hands of police. Not long after, five St. Louis Rams players entered the field making “Hands up, don’t shoot” gestures, a Cleveland Browns wide receiver wore a Justice for Tamir Rice warm-up shirt before a game, and a group of NBA players, James among them, wore I Can’t Breathe shirts during the pre-game shoot-around in an acknowledgment of Garner’s last words.
The months before Kaepernick’s protest saw more instances of high-profile stars speaking out. In July, following the fatal shootings of black men in Baton Rouge, La., and Minnesota and the massacre of five Dallas police officers, a number of WNBA players wore shirts with #BlackLivesMatter and #Dallas5 hashtags–prompting fines that the league later rescinded. That same month, James, Wade, Paul and fellow NBA star Carmelo Anthony opened the ESPY Awards with a call to action. “The racial profiling has to stop,” said Wade, a Chicago native whose cousin Nykea Aldridge was killed by a stray bullet there in August. “The shoot-to-kill mentality has to stop. Not seeing the value of black and brown bodies has to stop. But also the retaliation has to stop. The endless gun violence in places like Chicago, Dallas, not to mention Orlando–it has to stop. Enough.”
Even Michael Jordan, long the embodiment of the offend-none, profit-from-all sports star, has gotten involved, pledging $1 million each to the Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
The players cite a number of reasons for this renewed interest in broader causes. Social media, for one, has forced them to become more aware of the world around them, ensuring that even the tight bubble of the locker room is punctured by the latest viral police shooting. “It’s kind of crazy to imagine how we used to find out information,” Paul tells TIME. “I may be in practice or at a game, and then when the game is over I can pick up the phone and all the information is there. And I actually see video of things. Now it’s not what someone said happened. Now you can see footage and video and decide for yourself.”
What they see has been galvanizing, particularly for African-American men who recognize parts of themselves in the bodies on the news. “At some point in time, Twitter hashtags aren’t enough,” says Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills, one of the players who took a knee for the anthem. “Eventually, you have to stand up and try to bring some change.”
Not long after Kaepernick first explained his protest, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll invited Harry Edwards, a sociologist and activist who helped organize the black-power salute at the 1968 Olympics, to talk to his team. Scheduled for 90 minutes, the meeting stretched to more than three hours as players debated how they should respond, Edwards says. What they ultimately decided on–locking arms during the anthem as a way to show unity as a team if not uniformity in their opinions–matters less, Edwards says, than how they got there. “This process with athletes, on these teams, models what we need to do and where we need to go as a society,” he says.
Locking arms, taking a knee in protest: symbols have meaning, but the question hovering over the current movement is how protest can add up to progress. “All these guys that are a part of this, I completely honor their right to do it,” says Boyer, the veteran who helped prompt Kaepernick to switch from sitting to kneeling. “But it is imperative that they are part of the solution, that they are taking action themselves.”
Many are trying. After he began his protest, Kaepernick’s jersey became the top-selling one in the NFL, outpacing those of stars like Tom Brady. He has pledged to donate $1 million to community-based organizations, parceled out monthly in $100,000 increments, and has promised to track the ways the money is spent. Edwards is pushing for athletes, police and other community stakeholders to hold regular dialogue in neighborhood barbershops. McCourty, the New England Patriots safety, says he wants to meet with Boston’s police chief. Jenkins, the Philadelphia Eagles cornerback who raised a fist on Monday Night Football, has a ride-along with local police set up for late September in an attempt to bridge the communication gap between officers and residents.
“The worst thing I think you can do as a football player,” says Jenkins, “is to have gotten to this stage, had the presence that you’ve had, and leave this game as just a football player.”
Meanwhile, the movement they began shows no signs of slowing. Victor Oladipo, a guard on the Oklahoma City Thunder, says he expects NBA players to join in when their preseason begins in October. And on fields in places from Alaska to Nebraska, young athletes will continue on. “I don’t know if they’ll use this as a stepping-stone to think about other means of change in society,” says Eric Guthertz, the principal of San Francisco’s Mission High School, whose football team has embraced the protests. “Maybe the ultimate impact will be just how they carry themselves in the world, and that will be beautiful.”
–With reporting by ABIGAIL ABRAMS, ELIANA DOCKTERMAN and MERRILL FABRY/NEW YORK; LILY ROTHMAN/DURHAM; and KATY STEINMETZ/SAN FRANCISCO
This appears in the October 03, 2016 issue of TIME.