Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision in 2016 to not stand for the national anthem as a protest against the oppression of people of color lit a political fuse that continues to burn through the sports world and society.
His bold stand by sitting (and then kneeling) earned him widespread praise and scorn. In 2017, he was honored by Sports Illustrated with the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. In 2018, he was given the prestigious W.E.B Du Bois Medal from Harvard University for his his work combatting racial injustice and inequality.
"I feel like it's not only my responsibility, but all our responsibilities as people that are in positions of privilege, in positions of power, to continue to fight for them and uplift them, empower them," Kaepernick said in a speech at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard. "Because if we don't, we become complicit in the problem."
Time will tell whether Kaepernick’s legacy mirrors that of Ali, the most influential social activist in the history of sports. But there’s little doubt that Kaepernick has joined a long list of athletes from various sports circles who have used their positions and prestige as a platform to change society — whether as pioneers, social activists or both.
These men and women are the most influential athletes who struck a blow for social change, equality and justice through sports.