Colin Kaepernick’s Fearless Duane Thomas Stance Nets Him Nike Deal

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In 1971 and ’72 Duane Thomas did what Colin Kaepernick is doing today. He sat during the pregame playing of the National Anthem.

Oh my, how times have changed.

Colin Kaepernick, at 28 years of age and entering his third year in the National Football League stood the league on its ear.

Practically every player, including some of his fellow San Francisco 49ers, spoke out against his intentional failure, actually refusal, to stand during the playing of the National Anthem.

Kaepernick vowed to sit during the playing of the National Anthem at the beginning of each of his team’s football games.

It was not the first time that a young Black athlete, in the third year of his professional football career, had chosen to make a statement about the mistreatment of Black people in the USA, during the playing of the cherished Star Spangled Banner. An anthem which is essentially a poem whose third stanza humiliates enslaved people who took up arms with the British against the USA in 1812 in order to secure their freedom which was denied to them under the American constitution ratified in 1789.

In 1971, Duane Thomas in the third year of a contract with the Dallas Cowboys, that would have paid him a measly $20,000, refused to report to Cowboys’ training camp.

Thomas questioned the unfair negotiations between himself and the “take it or leave,” posture of the Cowboys. The team determined if he would work in the league and the rate of pay he would earn on that job.

Thomas felt powerless to control his professional life, alia Jackie Robinson. The world often notes the significances of Robinson breaking the color barrier in the white major league, but history seldom mentions that Robinson retired not because he had nothing left in the tank, but because he refused to be traded like a piece of chattel from the Brooklyn Dodgers to the New York Giants, like his grandfathers had been bought and sold on the auction block in Cairo, Georgia during the days of enslavement.

The Cowboys and all of professional sports, then and today, largely exploit their labor by using a business model similar to that of southern plantation owners in another era of American history. They pay the minimum amount they can get away with for their laborers, and keep literally billions of dollars for themselves.

Thomas was traded to the San Diego Chargers before the ’71 season. They offered to pay him about $85,000 per year for the next three years. A significant jump, but by this time, Thomas was fed up. He was not going to slave on the NFL plantation any longer.

If he did, it would be under his own terms. He reported to the Chargers before the 8th game of the season, after he had cashed a $13,000 bonus check the club issued to him if he would join the team for the remainder of the season.

While Thomas’ teammates stood at attention with hands over their hearts as the National Anthem played, Thomas paced back and forth, then before the Anthem was finished, he flopped down on a sideline bench, where he stayed during the entire game. He did not show up for another game that season.

Traded to the Washington football franchise the next season, Thomas reported to the club during the preseason drills and continued to sit during the Star Spangled Banner at preseason games.

Football fans, especially the white ones, quickly, turned on him. The backlash was similar to that expressed over Kaepernick’s decision to protest a political and legal system rigged against people of color in America.

In one 1972 preseason game, Thomas had had enough of the taunts and went into the stands to kick a fan in the seat of his pants. Shortly after, he was out of the game.

The brothers said it was a shame that Thomas could not earn a living running that ball for the Dallas Cowboys, but none of them refused to play unless Thomas was made whole.

Kaepernick came along 42 years later and took his team to the Super Bowl in his first NFL season, then decided the wholesale killing of young Black men in the streets of America was an age old injustice that had to be confronted. He sat, then took a knee during the playing of the white American anthem, Blacks have their own anthem (Lift Every Voice and Sing), and the backlash started, cheered on by the American President.

In the two years since, little has changed. Racism continues to run rampant in the streets of America, people of color continued to play sports, fight in American wars, get shot by police officers on a weekly basis in their cars, in the street, and now, in their homes; and work for wages far below those paid to white citizens.

For better or far worst, Kaepernick has started a new conversation about what it has meant to be colored in America from 1619 to 2016 and presumably up to 2019, the four hundred year anniversary of the enslavement of Africans in North America.

It will probably end his career in the NFL, but his conversation starter, now backed by Nike, adds to the many voices crying out, “iustitiam, iustitiam in circuitu,” which is to bellow, justice, justice in the round!

Harold Michael Harvey is an American novelist and essayist. He is a Contributor at The Hill, SCLC National Magazine, Southern Changes Magazine, Medium and Black College Nines. He can be contacted at hmharvey@haroldmichaelharvey.com

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