When Colin Kaepernick started taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016 to protest racial injustice, only a handful of teammates and players from across the NFL joined him.
What a difference four years makes.
Players, coaches and even some owners across the league, citing the killing of George Floyd and the eruption of protests that followed, are embracing Kaepernick’s signature protest as a way to support nationwide calls to end racism.
Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, Redskins running back Adrian Peterson and Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien have all pledged to take a knee this season.
The shift in attitudes comes as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said earlier this month that the league was “wrong” to not listen to players about racism.
In 2016, some fans, including then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, said players who knelt during the national anthem should be fired, and the controversy around the protests was blamed, at least in part, for a dip in television ratings that year.
But a recent poll from Yahoo News found that a majority of Americans now say it is OK for NFL players to protest during the anthem. Taking a knee drew a 52% approval rating, up from 2016 when only 28% of Americans supported the protests.
On Monday, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson even suggested even his boss, the president, would “get there” when it comes to accepting athletes who protest during the national anthem.
“Well, I don’t think he has manifested as much animosity in that region lately,” Carson told conservative host Hugh Hewitt. “ And I think we just continue to work with him. He’ll get there.”
Trump’s approval of kneeling would mark a major reversal — he underscored his opposition again on Saturday, tweeting he would not watch the NFL if players protest during the anthem.
In the past month, Trump also criticized Saints quarterback Drew Brees for apologizing for saying he would “never agree” with someone who wouldn’t stand for the anthem.
NFL players and other athletes who’ve adopted the protest insist the act of kneeling is not intended as a show of disrespect for the military or the flag.
“Everybody so upset about my comment doesn’t understand the reason behind kneeling in the first place,” Mayfield wrote on social media about his decision.
“I have the utmost respect for our military, cops, and people that serve OUR country. It’s about equality and everybody being treated the same because we are all human. It’s been ignored for too long and that it my fault as well for not becoming more educated and staying silent.
“If I lose fans, that’s OK. I’ve always spoken my mind. And that’s from the heart.”
Yahoo’s poll sampled 1,570 Americans to weigh on kneeling, police brutality and other topics. Of those sampled, 77% who identified as a Democrat approved of kneeling, while only 20% of Republicans said they were fine with it.
Only three players — Houston’s Kenny Stills, Miami’s Albert Wilson and former Panthers and free agent safety Eric Reid — took a knee last season. That number seems poised to rise dramatically this year.
In an interview with reporters last week, Chicago Bears safety and special teams ace Jordan Lucas said he was “scared” to kneel as a rookie in 2016, but will be “110%” protesting next season.
“I didn’t want to lose my position on the team,” Lucas said. “I didn’t want to be looked at differently by the front office or my coaches just because I didn’t have a name, I didn’t really have a spot on the team. I didn’t want to lose anything. I just got there, you know what I am saying?
“But I think a lot of people are seeing now that it’s much bigger than the flag and disrespecting the flag. We’re not disrespecting the flag nor the military. And I think people are really starting to understand that now.”