Nancy Gillen

Colin Kaepernick last played in the National Football League (NFL) at the end of the 2016 season. After leaving the San Francisco 49ers, he became a free agent but has since remained unsigned. 

In October 2017, Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL, accusing league owners of collusion to keep him out of the competition. The quarterback believed his inability to find his club was down to his on-field protests, rather than his performance.

Indeed, Kaepernick had become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement. Before every 49ers match during the 2016 season, Kaepernick knelt during the American national anthem, doing so alongside teammate Eric Reid to protest against the oppression of black people and the number of African American deaths caused by law enforcement.

His actions drew support and criticism alike, but the NFL fell firmly on the side of the latter. The league even went as far as to threaten fines for teams whose players took the knee or sat during the anthem.

In February 2019, Kaepernick reached a confidential settlement with the NFL and withdrew his grievance. Despite this, the 32-year-old's situation has been catapulted back into the limelight as anti-racism protests take place across both the United States and the world. These have been sparked by the death of a black man – George Floyd – as white police officer Derek Chauvin, now charged with second-degree murder, knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes.

Colin Kaepernick is synonymous with the taking of the knee to protest racial inequality and police brutality ©Getty Images
Colin Kaepernick is synonymous with the taking of the knee to protest racial inequality and police brutality ©Getty Images

Thousands are now taking the knee in protest of police brutality and racial injustice, and such is the magnitude of the movement that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did something extraordinary.

Having been prompted by a number of black NFL players including Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Odell Beckham, Goodell released a video apologising for the league’s previous stance on peaceful on-field protests.

"We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people," said the accompanying tweet.

"We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter." 

Goodell did not mention Kaepernick in his statement, however, showing that the NFL has not yet truly changed their attitude to his stance. Some have also suggested the move is purely tokenistic and a way to appease the league's black players. Nonetheless, it is a turnaround that may be repeated by other sporting organisations over the next few months.

Over the past year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has tried to enforce a no-nonsense approach to podium protests, with President Thomas Bach taking every opportunity to remind athletes that demonstrating at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics was strictly forbidden.

In January, specific guidelines were added to the IOC's Rule 50. These state that "no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

In some ways, the IOC will now be thanking their lucky stars that Tokyo 2020 was postponed to 2021. Otherwise, in just six weeks, the Games would be taking place in a climate where athletes have realised the power of their platform and are willing to use it.

Numerous athletes have voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter movement over the past two weeks, with many participating in protests themselves. American tennis player Coco Gauff delivered a particularly powerful speech in Florida.

During her speech, 16-year-old Gauff suggested that she would not remain silent on issues important to her during her career, saying, "if you are choosing silence, you are choosing the side of the oppressor."

As colleague Mike Rowbottom pointed out, the IOC can not just switch athletes off, especially when it comes to an issue that many are either directly affected by or are extremely passionate about.

In response to the protests, the IOC has said that it "fully respects that many athletes have made statements on social media and in the media.

"This is their individual right, and this is a right that we fully support.

"For its part, the IOC will continue to be guided for all Olympic-related matters by the Fundamental Principles of the Olympic Charter, in particular Principle 6, which states: 'The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.'

"The IOC will continue its mission to bring the entire world together through sport, whilst respecting the scope of its mandate."

How long will it be before the IOC is exposed for hypocrisy over podium protests in the same way that the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) is being exposed so publicly at the moment?

Last year, hammer thrower Gwen Berry and fencer Race Imboden were sanctioned with a year's probation by USOPC after they both protested on the podium at the Pan American Games in Lima.

Just 10 months later, however, in a letter to athletes addressing the demonstrations across the country, USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland said the organisation "stands with those who demand equality and we want to work in pursuit of that goal".

Berry pointed out that USOPC did not in fact stand with her and Imboden when they demanded an apology and asked the organisation for an apology. She has since been able to express her grievances directly to Hirshland but has also written a letter criticising both USOPC and the IOC.

Hammer thrower Gwen Berry accused the USOPC of hypocrisy after the organisation released an anti-racism statement ©Getty Images
Hammer thrower Gwen Berry accused the USOPC of hypocrisy after the organisation released an anti-racism statement ©Getty Images

"What infuriates me is the IOC's own museum, in Lausanne, promotes and celebrates the importance of equality and respect," Berry wrote.

"The IOC website praises the sacrifice of athletes like Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Muhammad Ali for their protests, that brought attention to issues of race and inequality - and yet the IOC destroyed Tommie and John's careers."

She suggested the IOC stance of celebrating these athletes while also banning current athletes from protesting is "confusing at best and outright hypocritical at worst".

This is indeed true, and it will only take an athlete to protest racial inequality at next year's Olympic or Paralympic Games for the IOC to come under heavy criticism for this very reason. How could the IOC or a National Olympic Committee punish an athlete for doing something which has also been celebrated and which has such public backing? 

As the protests across the world continue, it may be too much to expect the IOC to change their hardline stance, but some National Olympic Committees and other sporting organisations may begin to resist the stringent podium protest rules. The NFL's reversal on its own policy could well open the floodgates.