When Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to take a stand against police brutality and racial injustice in 2016, he was mostly alone.
Politicians, team owners and fellow players criticized him, fans burned his jersey, and he was booed even at home. Four years later, his protest is widely viewed as prescient.
Even NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized to players for not listening to them earlier and encouraged them to protest peacefully.
"We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of black people," Goodell said in a video released Friday. "We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter. I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much needed change in this country."
Global opinion has shifted so much that more people are now vilifying those who attack Kaepernick or misrepresent his stance.
New Orleans Saints star quarterback Drew Brees issued a public apology Thursday after he was excoriated by teammates, other athletes and fans for saying he “will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States.”
That sentiment has been voiced loudly by Kaepernick's critics and President Donald Trump reiterated it Friday, saying on Twitter: "I am a big fan of Drew Brees. I think he's truly one of the greatest quarterbacks, but he should not have taken back his original stance on honoring our magnificent American Flag. OLD GLORY is to be revered, cherished, and flown high... We should be standing up straight and tall, ideally with a salute, or a hand on heart. There are other things you can protest, but not our Great American Flag - NO KNEELING!"
Brees responded on social media in a post addressed to the president's Twitter handle.
"Through my ongoing conversations with friends, teammates, and leaders in the black community, I realize this is not an issue about the American flag. It has never been," Brees wrote. "We can no longer use the flag to turn people away or distract them from the real issues that face our black communities.
"We did this back in 2017, and regretfully I brought it back with my comments this week. We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform. We are at a critical juncture in our nation's history! If not now, then when?
"We as a white community need to listen and learn from the pain and suffering of our black communities. We must acknowledge the problems, identify the solutions, and then put this into action. The black community cannot do it alone. This will require all of us."
George Floyd's death, which ignited nationwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality, awakened many people to the root of the issues that led to Kaepernick's peaceful demonstration - an expression meant to raise awareness of such issues, not demean the flag or the anthem. The 32-year-old Kaepernick hasn't played in the NFL since 2016.
“The protest is really trying to hold us accountable for the things we say we believe in. It’s about equality and justice for all," said Houston Texans wide receiver Kenny Stills, who has been taking a knee since Week 1 of the 2016 season.
This week, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Kaepernick deserves respect and admiration for starting the protest. Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll praised him for his courage and sacrificing his career. Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy compared Kaepernick to Muhammad Ali.
"There's a lot of parallels between Colin and my father," said Ali's daughter, Khaliah. "He stands 100 percent with integrity no matter the cost. He made an unwavering commitment for the betterment of his people and took an unapologetic stance against injustice. I have had many people attempt to discourage our support of Colin, which is unthinkable to me. He is a friend to our family, he is loved and honored."
The NFL and its teams have voiced their support for equality and called for change. In a video released Thursday night, 2018 NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes and several of his peers asked the league to "condemn racism and the systemic oppression of black people" and "admit wrong in silencing players from peacefully protesting."
Goodell did so in his strongest statement since Kaepernick and other players began their protests.
"Without black players, there would be no National Football League," Goodell said. "And the protests around the country are emblematic of the centuries of silence, inequality and oppression of black players, coaches, fans and staff. We are listening. I am listening, and I will be reaching out to players who have raised their voices and others on how we can improve and go forward for a better and more united NFL family."
Kaepernick still wants an opportunity to play. A workout in Atlanta last November that was organized by the NFL turned chaotic and resulted in no job offers.
"Colin is a talented football player," Seahawks star Russell Wilson said this week. "I remember playing against him; the man could play some football. But he stood up for something far more greater than football. And that's people's lives. He was standing up for people that have come and gone and for everyone who is African American and the oppression that has been going on."
AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow and AP Sports Writers Tim Booth and Steve Megargee contributed to this report.
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