In September 2017, as many criticized the “take a knee” protests by National Football League players as anti-military, readers wrote in to ask if a veteran had played a role in Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem in protest of police killings of African Americans.
Army Special Forces veteran Nate Boyer has said that his conversations with Kaepernick influenced the former NFL player to kneel, rather than sit, during the anthem.
Kaepernick began his protest by sitting on the bench during the anthem prior to a preseason game on 14 August 2016 when he was playing for the San Francisco 49ers. He was not in uniform at the time. The protest began garnering coverage when journalist Jennifer Lee Chan captured him sitting (this time in uniform) in a photograph prior to the team’s third preseason game on 26 August 2016.
Two days later, Kaepernick spoke to reporters about the protest. The encounter included this exchange:
Reporter: So many people see the flag as a symbol of the military. How do you view it and what do you say to those people?
Kaepernick: I have great respect for the men and women that have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice, for everyone. That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody. That’s something that’s not happening. I’ve seen videos, I’ve seen circumstances where men and women that have been in the military have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they have fought for, and have been murdered by the country they fought for, on our land. That’s not right.
When asked whether his protest could be construed as “a blanket indictment of law enforcement in general,” Kaepernick said:
There is police brutality. People of color have been targeted by police. So that’s a large part of it and they’re government officials. They are put in place by the government. So that’s something that this country has to change. There’s things we can do to hold them more accountable. Make those standards higher. You have people that practice law and are lawyers and go to school for eight years, but you can become a cop in six months and don’t have to have the same amount of training as a cosmetologist. That’s insane. Someone that’s holding a curling iron has more education and more training than people that have a gun and are going out on the street to protect us.
On 30 August 2016, the Army Times published an open letter to Kaepernick from former Seattle Seahawks player Nate Boyer, who served as a Green Beret in U.S. military actions in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In the piece, Boyer reflected on how he felt standing on the field as the anthem played during his only appearance for the Seahawks:
I thought about how far I’d come and the men I’d fought alongside who didn’t make it back. I thought about those overseas who were risking their lives at that very moment. I selfishly thought about what I had sacrificed to get to where I was, and while I knew I had little to no chance of making the Seahawks’ roster as a 34-year-old rookie, I was trying.
That moment meant so much more to me than even playing in the game did, and to be honest, if I had noticed my teammate sitting on the bench, it would have really hurt me.
I’m not judging you for standing up for what you believe in. It’s your inalienable right. What you are doing takes a lot of courage, and I’d be lying if I said I knew what it was like to walk around in your shoes. I’ve never had to deal with prejudice because of the color of my skin, and for me to say I can relate to what you’ve gone through is as ignorant as someone who’s never been in a combat zone telling me they understand what it’s like to go to war.
Boyer and Kaepernick met after the open letter was published, and before San Francisco’s final preseason game on 2 September 2016 in San Diego — the first time the quarterback knelt in front of the bench instead of sitting during the anthem. Boyer posted a photograph of himself with Kaepernick following the meeting, and later said:
We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammate. Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.
Kaepernick’s then-teammate Eric Reid joined him in kneeling for the protest prior to that game. He recalled the experience in an op-ed published by The New York Times on 25 September 2017:
After hours of careful consideration, and even a visit from Nate Boyer, a retired Green Beret and former NFL player, we came to the conclusion that we should kneel, rather than sit, the next day during the anthem as a peaceful protest. We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.
Boyer also expanded on his discussion with both Reid and Kaepernick during a CNN town hall broadcast on 27 September 2017:
[Kaepernick] reached out and we were able to sit down together for a couple of hours before the last preseason game last year. It was really cool to hear him just listen, too, and be very open-minded, too, and [say] “Look, I don’t want to hurt you, I don’t want to hurt your brothers and sisters.” I showed him text messages of friends of mine and some of them were saying I was a disgrace to the Green Berets ’cause I was even meeting with him. And some of them were like, “I’m with you man but it really hurts me to see that.”
So when I talked to them, it was mutual. Me, him, and Eric Reid [said] “I think maybe taking a knee would be a little more respectful. It’s still a demonstration. You’re still saying something but, people take a knee to pray. So for me it was a common ground, at least, to start from.
Although Kaepernick is not currently signed to a team, various NFL players and team owners adopted the kneeling protest prior to games on 24 September 2017 after President Donald Trump told supporters during a rally that owners should fire any player who engaged in the demonstration, saying, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired.”