Colin Kaepernick Knelt For The Anthem Because A Veteran Told Him To

Don't let Nate Boyer's story get lost in the noise.

The first time Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, a Green Beret was standing proudly by his side with a hand over his heart. 

That man was Nate Boyer, a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Army who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, played college football at the University of Texas and then played briefly in the NFL. But in the hoopla that has followed Kaepernick since his protest of police brutality began — the national outrage toward him, his inability to sign with a new team, a legal battle with the NFL owners, the controversial Nike ad campaign, the president attacking him personally — Boyer's story, and his voice, have been largely drowned out. 

By any measure, that's a shame. Not just because he's one of a handful of NFL players who have served in the military, but also because he has a novel position on the entire situation: he calls it the "radical middle."

"My initial reaction to the protests was I was hurt by it, I was upset by it," Boyer told A Plus. "I felt like the type of oppression I'd seen and fought against in the Darfur and in Afghanistan and Iraq was something we don't experience here in this day and age... But then I sat back and thought about it a bit — and came to terms with the fact that oppression exists on various levels. I have no idea what it's like to be a person of color in this country. And more importantly, the only experience I have is my own."

Because of his status in the military and experience in the NFL, when Kaepernick and other players first started sitting on the bench during the national anthem, various outlets reached out to Boyer to write about the issue or to speak to it in television interviews. Instead, he decided to write an open letter to Kaepernick in the Army Times and let the quarterback know that, while he didn't support him sitting during the anthem, he was doing his best to listen to the issues Kaepernick was raising.


"His explanation for not standing was that he wasn't going to stand for the flag of a country that oppressed black people and people of color," Boyer recalled. "I had to kind of shut my mouth and open my ears and eyes a little bit."

The open letter was received well by both the public and Kaepernick. It was shared thousands of times, read millions of times, and eventually, Kaepernick himself saw it. He invited Boyer down to the San Francisco 49ers preseason game that year, where the two met in the hotel lobby. For hours, they shared their perspectives about injustices in the country and the protest that was just beginning to take root across the NFL. Throughout their conversation, Boyer said Kaepernick was very appreciative of his service and seemed grateful for what men and women in uniform do for the country. But Kaepernick also felt that the flag wasn't being represented the way it should be. Boyer explained how, for him and for many people across the globe, the flag is a symbol of freedom. 

At the end of the conversation, Kaepernick made it clear he would continue to protest, but was interested in Boyer's perspective on how to go about it. Boyer didn't like that players were choosing not to stand, but he offered another proposition: kneeling. In Boyer's mind, kneeling was a sign of reverence and respect. Sitting was more disrespectful, and almost looked lazy, Boyer thought. If Kaepernick wasn't going to stand, kneeling was the next best thing. Boyer assured the quarterback he'd stand with him if that was the approach he took.

Colin Kaepernick kneels beside Nate Boyer
: Eric Reid #35 and Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel on the sideline during the anthem, as free agent Nate Boyer stands, prior to the game against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on September 1, 2016. Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

"When in our history has kneeling ever been seen as a disrespectful act?" Boyer said. "People take a knee to pray and to propose to their wives. Knights take a knee when they are knighted. We take a knee in front of a fallen brother's grave to pay respects in the military. When a player is hurt on the field in a football game, the players all take a knee out of respect. We both thought that was a good middle ground, and he thought that was more powerful than sitting. So he agreed to do that and I agreed to stand next to him."

That night was military appreciation night. There was a fighter jet flyover, an African-American sailor sang the national anthem, and Navy Seals skydived into the stadium. Players kneeled and fans booed them for not standing. And amongst all of that, Boyer stood next to Kaepernick as the first of many players took a knee during the national anthem.

In the time since, criticism of the players' solemn protest has largely centered on the concern that kneeling during the national anthem was a sign of disrespect to members of the military and the flag they fought for — despite the fact that it was a veteran who first suggested that Kaepernick and his colleagues kneel.

"I'm not surprised at all," Boyer told A Plus of the circus the protests have turned into. "That's just where we're at. It's our fault as individual Americans. I'm not blaming anyone in office or the media or anything."

Boyer said he and Kaepernick haven't spoken in a year, but he follows the quarterback closely. To this day, Boyer has maintained his competing positions on the protests. Part of his objection to the demonstration is that the history of the national anthem goes back to World War I, when the song was first played during baseball games as a way to bring people together and honor the soldiers fighting overseas. For Boyer, it's a moment that is supposed to be unifying. And yet, with his "radical middle" stance, he simultaneously emphasizes that what Kaepernick and other NFL players are doing is itself patriotism.

"He's exercising a First Amendment right," Boyer said. "How is that not patriotic in some way? As long as he's not doing it specifically to cause harm. He's doing it to raise awareness about something with the hopes of bettering a situation."

A year after the protests began, Kaepernick was released by the 49ers. Despite his NFL talent, he hasn't been re-signed by a team since, which prompted him to sue the NFL owners. His attorney says the owners "have colluded to deprive Mr. Kaepernick of employment rights in retaliation for Mr. Kaepernick's leadership and advocacy for equality and social justice and his bringing awareness to peculiar institutions still undermining racial equality in the United States," according to ESPN. When Kaepernick was featured prominently in a Nike advertisement this month, thousands said online that they would boycott the company. Some even uploaded videos of themselves burning Nike shoes and clothing. 

The divisiveness around the protests made Boyer realize how polarized we are as a country, and also how much we stereotype each other as people. He says fellow Americans often inaccurately assume things about what he stands for just because he was in the military or fought overseas. He believes that most people in the United States have "all the basics" to prosper and the solution to some of our biggest problems would be just being nice to each other.

"People on the left don't own the rights to open-mindedness and people on the right don't own the rights to patriotism," Boyer said. "We're struggling with both."

Asked how he maintains optimism in such a divisive time, Boyer says the people in the media who tell stories that aren't meant to divide or tear Americans apart give him hope. Those stories, he thinks, more accurately represent the ideas many Americans can agree on instead of focusing on the Americans who disagree.

"Really getting the stories out and the voices out for people that are reasonable," Boyer said. "People that are fighting for something, but at the same time willing to surrender a little bit. We need to hear more of those voices.  We're getting drowned out by people on the far sides of the spectrum that are the loudest, but I think most of us are in the middle somewhere."

Cover image  via Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images.


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