Within minutes of each other Wednesday afternoon, Mike Pence and Donald Trump Jr. spiked the proverbial football. NFL owners had just announced a new policy for the national anthem that called for players to either stay in the locker room or stand for the song. Kneeling would now be punished. Both men tweeted the same hashtag: #winning.
The glee spread among Republicans. Mike Braun, a Senate candidate in Indiana, sent out an email blast extolling the news and dared his Democratic opponent, Joe Donnelly, to oppose it. On CNN, Chris Cuomo asked Nancy Pelosi for her reaction. The leader of the Democratic Party in the House seemed in no mood to lock arms with the players and took a pass. “I love the national anthem,” Pelosi said. “And I love the First Amendment and I’ll leave it at that.”
The player who started it all, Colin Kaepernick, began his protest in the fall of 2016 when he knelt to bring attention to racial inequality and police violence against minorities. Since the end of that season, when he left the San Francisco 49ers, he hasn’t played a down as a professional quarterback. Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s fellow protester and former teammate, also remains unemployed. (Both have sued the league for collusion.) NFL fans, meanwhile, support the new anthem policy overwhelmingly, according to one new poll. All of this is to say that the league—with a big push from the White House—has delivered a fairly complete rebuke of Kaepernick and other outspoken football players, many of them black; and, come the 2018 season, which begins in a few months, an effective muzzling of them, as well.
But if history is any guide, the marginalization of outspoken and high-profile black athletes will not stay a win forever. During the past half-century, dominated as it has been by culture-rattling debates over race and social justice, there have been numerous examples of activist athletes who suffered ostracism and worse, only to see themselves welcomed and even glorified decades later by a society whose conscience finally caught up to the righteousness of their causes. The media who scorned them in the hottest moment of their protest produced respectful biopics and coolly reconsidered their roles in a much longer arc of history. In short, these kneeling football players’ reputations will likely be rehabilitated sufficiently that the general public who boycotted and harassed them for disrupting their entertainment with politics may well one day embrace them as unsung heroes. “This isn’t a win that history is going to look too kindly on,” said Lou Moore, a sports historian and Grand Valley State University professor. “It will take some time, but Kaepernick will be proven right.”