Colin Kaepernick has long utilized the power of imagery to get across his message — look no further than his kneeling protests — and his choice of T-shirt did just that on Saturday.
After days of sharp disputes with the NFL, the former Super Bowl quarterback walked onto the field for his workout on Saturday wearing a T-shirt bearing the name Kunta Kinte.
Kunta Kinte is the main character in “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” Alex Haley’s 1976 novel. The novel was the basis for the epic 1977 ABC miniseries “Roots” that attracted a staggering audience of more than 100 million viewers. Slightly more than half of all US households with a TV watched the finale of the eight-part series.
Portrayed by LeVar Burton, Kunta Kinte was kidnapped from Africa, transported across the Atlantic and forced into slavery in the American South. His owner renamed him “Toby.” But he refused to accept the name imposed on him and, in a memorable scene, was whipped repeatedly for that disobedience.
He attempts to escape four times but is captured each time. After the final attempt, the owners cut half of his foot off to prevent another escape.
Though “Roots” is more than 40 years old, the character of Kunta Kinte remains a powerful force in pop culture and has been cited in songs by Missy Elliott and Kendrick Lamar, including in his song “King Kunta.”
On Saturday, Kaepernick appeared to use the reference to make a statement: He will not change who he is to appease the powers that be.
The workout came after the NFL announced on short notice that Kaepernick would participate in a throwing session in front of scouts and coaches. But disagreements over its timing, whether it would be public and other issues led Kaepernick to cancel that event and hold a public workout session at a different practice field in Atlanta, Georgia.
Once a star with the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick has been out of the NFL since 2016, the same season when he first sat during the pre-game National Anthem as a protest of police brutality and racism. The protest evolved into kneeling after onetime Seattle Seahawk and Green Beret Nate Boyer convinced Kaepernick that kneeling would be more respectful to the nation’s military, the quarterback has said.
His protests sparked a backlash, including criticism from President Trump. Since then, no team has offered to sign him to a new deal. He filed a grievance against the NFL in 2017 alleging the owners were colluding to keep him out. The case was settled for an undisclosed sum last year.
Clothing as message
For Kaepernick, wearing clothing with a political message is nothing new.
He previously wore the Kunta Kinte shirt in 2018 on his way to a deposition in his collusion case against the NFL, according to a photo from TMZ Sports.
While still with the San Francisco 49ers in August 2016, he wore socks that depicted pigs in police hats to protest police brutality and racism. The outfit sparked angry criticism from the head of a national police organization.
“We have cops that are murdering people. We have cops in SFPD that are blatantly racist. Those issues need to be addressed,” Kaepernick said afterward.
“I have uncles, I have friends that are cops. I have great respect for them because they are doing it for the right reason and they genuinely want to protect and help people,” he said. “That’s not the case for all cops. And the cops that are murdering people and are racist are putting other cops in danger — like my family, like my friends.”
Later that month, Kaepernick wore a T-shirt with photos of a meeting between Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Malcolm X, the famed black nationalist.
He defended the shirt and praised Castro for investing in Cuba’s education system as opposed to the American investment in the prison system, according to a Miami Herald columnist.
At his workout Saturday, Kaepernick eventually shed the Kunta Kinte shirt for an outfit more befitting the occasion, but even that carried its own deeper meaning. He tossed passes wearing a sleeveless athletic shirt from Nike, which last year made Kaepernick the face of their brand.
Nike’s ad campaign featuring Kaepernick included the tagline, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”