Taking the star-spangled knee: the media framing of Colin Kaepernick | A summary

Steph Doehler
School of Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport, Open University (UK)

When Colin Kaepernick, the biracial quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, chose to take the knee during the National Anthem for the duration of the 2016 NFL season criticism was widespread, with the media largely deeming him unpatriotic and anti-military. Kaepernick’s action was driven by his perception of America’s conduct towards racial minorities. Following a season of activism, Kaepernick opted out of his multi-million-dollar contract with the 49ers, becoming a free agent in 2017. After rumours of blackballing, Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL, accusing club owners of collusion to exile him from the sport. In February 2019 Kaepernick reached a confidential agreement with the league to withdraw the complaint but has yet to play professionally since.

This research analyses the newspaper coverage of Kaepernick’s activism through the lens of media framing, where key frames were identified and scrutinised using the theoretical framework of the protest paradigm. In an innovative departure from other research into Kaepernick, this paper revisits the coverage of the former NFL player in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a police officer, offering a more nuanced interpretation into the hindsight of athlete activism. A total of 324 articles were analysed from The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

The following section will identify the main frames that were identified from the analysis of the 2016 articles and associate each frame with the relevant characteristic(s) of the protest paradigm.

Frame one: the action, not the issue

The most dominant frame highlighted that very little reporting addressed Kaepernick’s issue on racial injustice and police brutality, strongly favouring a focus on his action of kneeling instead. Here, we see the delegitimization characteristic of the protest paradigm, whereby Kaepernick’s protest is largely delegitimised due to the media’s inability to sufficiently clarify the meaning and context behind his activism.

Frame two: the military

Kaepernick’s supposed disrespect towards the military evoked impassioned dialogue in the media’s narrative. Despite protestations that his action was not intended to insult army personnel, a link between the protest and the military was quickly established. Within this frame two characteristics of the protest paradigm were present: reliance on official sources and definitions, where many articles within the corpus focused on the reactions of those in positions of power and institutional authority, and demonization, where accusations of being anti-American, anti-military and anti-police all served to damage Kaepernick’s character.

The 2020 analysis provides evidence that reporters reflected on his protest in a more appreciative and understanding manner. The same journalists who chastised Kaepernick in 2016 validated his actions in the wake of Floyd’s murder.

Frame three: patriotism vs freedom of speech

A clear conflict emerged here between those who felt Kaepernick’s protest displayed a clear disregard of the patriotic nature of the United States, against those who acknowledged his right to exercise freedom of speech. Again, the reliance on official sources and definitions characteristic was present as the frame spotlights the media’s dependence on utilizing official sources to support their perspective. Considerable reference was made to the constitutional rights of Americans, particularly the First Amendment which acknowledges one’s right to express ideas through speech and protest, and was the source of substantial debate from journalists.

Frame four: moral outrage to a discrete action

This final frame explores the general outrage towards Kaepernick for his activism, and his legitimacy as an appropriate protester was called into question. Furthermore, Kaepernick, and other athletes who knelt in solidarity, had their actions defined in discrete terms, not as part of a wider movement. Within this frame we see the invocation of public opinioncharacteristic of the protest paradigm, where opinion polls and bystander portrayals were utilized to represent the public’s opinion of Kaepernick.

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We now fast forward nearly four years. Following George Floyd’s murder, Kaepernick, who spent the intervening period advancing his social reform mission, was the source of discussion once again by the media, this time with a significantly more favourable narrative. This section intentionally omits the protest paradigm from analysis as the media were no longer reporting on a live protest.

Frame one: it’s (largely) not our fault!

An overwhelming narrative focused attention on criticizing primarily the NFL for their ineptitude in failing to understand the sentiment behind Kaepernick’s protest, largely pardoning accountability of their own reporting throughout 2016. Some writers suggested the media could be more open to undertake difficult and controversial debates in a more appropriate and valuable manner than before, but nevertheless the admission of culpability was narrow amongst reporters within the three publications.

Frame two: Colin Kaepernick, the revolutionist

As history has proven for other athlete activists, time has been largely kind to Kaepernick, with a new appreciation for his protest. Several journalists, players and coaches commended Kaepernick for his action, with a distinct about-turn from four years previously.

Frame three: time for change

Criticism of the media’s evolution in their reporting notwithstanding, 2020 signified an opportunity for change. With major companies racing to publicly condemn racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder the issue of racial inequality has been placed front and centre of the public’s consciousness, and in 2020 the media readily acknowledged it.

We uncovered interesting insight into the parameters of the debate around Kaepernick’s activism and the 2016 findings illustrate how the media concealed his intended anti-racism debate, almost exclusively evading the discussion. Whilst some journalists defended Kaepernick’s right to protest and acknowledged that conversations around patriotism steered away from the meaningful debate, this approach still diluted Kaepernick’s message. Despite occasional attempts to redirect the conversation, pertinent issues were barely discussed or even acknowledged in the wider debate. However, whilst it was inelegant for reporters to focus on issues beyond Kaepernick’s intention with such force,  it would be unfair to suggest that the journalists were wholly culpable for the furore surrounding his activism. Kaepernick was intentional about both the time and place of his protest, exploiting his role as a star footballer to gain maximum exposure for his cause, and whilst neither the National Anthem nor the American flag were the reason for his activism, what they symbolised was a clear target.

The 2020 analysis provides evidence that reporters reflected on his protest in a more appreciative and understanding manner. The same journalists who chastised Kaepernick in 2016 validated his actions in the wake of Floyd’s murder. There appeared more acknowledgement that these difficult conversations do need to occur and Kaepernick was recognised as a social activist rather than social deviant. Though there still remains considerable opportunity for progression as, although the 2020 reporting applauded Kaepernick, meaningful discourse on racial injustice and police brutality lacked depth, with the narrative suggesting that conversations needed to happen, as opposed to them actively happening.

This research highlights that sports journalists are habitually ill-equipped to debate issues of race. We illustrated that several reporters bypassed this deficiency by assuming the aggressive approach of criticizing Kaepernick’s action and focused on more superficial themes. The media’s tactics in 2016 rejected opportunity for a crucial discussion regarding racial inequality in America and created a sideshow of derisive debate.

Copyright © Steph Doehler 202|

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