The curious case of Colin Kaepernick continues to unfold.
The 49’ers quarterback had the 20th best-selling team jersey just a few weeks before he started sitting out the national anthem during the preseason, in protest for the many racial injustices taking place in the country.
Today, according to Sports Illustrated, he now has the highest-selling jersey among his teammates.
In spite of the backlash online (and boos from the stands) Kaepernick does not appear to be re-thinking his stance. Instead, with the announcement of $1 million donation to various charities, he seems to be pressing ahead.
And yet, his quiet protest continues to rankle. It’s a curious part of the modern sports complex that we have come to think of the arenas that house professional athletes as sacred, patriotic spaces, part of a regularly-occurring national ritual that cannot be sullied for any reason.
Journalist Kevin B. Blackistone has an important column in the Washington Post exploring this very idea:
“But there is no sport that provides as large and gaudy a platform as Kaepernick’s endeavor, football, which over the years has grown into a mammoth business bringing in tens of billions of dollars while being cloaked and marketed in more patriotic imagery than any other games. There are military flyovers. Every game includes a presentation of the colors featuring the branches of the military.”
Walking into such a highly-charged atmosphere, Colin Kaepernick has managed to tow a fine line with his protest, partly by being careful, but mostly by being sincere.
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If his Twitter and Instagram feeds are any indication, Kaepernick has been thinking about these issues for awhile. He has now abandoned his go-to “abs portraiture” for commentary about the Movement for Black Lives. And his willingness to amend his sideline sit-down to take a knee instead, indicated to many that he was trying to address his bigger point without unintentionally hurting veterans.
But the criticism has got to sting at times. Kaepernick is mixed race, born to an overwhelmed single mom in a troubled Milwaukee zip code that may have doomed him to a deadly future if for the thousand little miracles – including his own talent and the care of a loving, adoptive family – that intervened. It can’t be fun for him to hear his patriotism and his blackness called into question.
I have to believe that he’s got inner reserves of strength from years of having done the very hard work of standing out while also trying to blend in.
But Kaepernick’s careful risk-taking is also a good reminder that many people take principled stands and launch quiet protests every day, that mostly go unnoticed.
Maybe wearing a Kaepernick jersey is good way for some of them to finally get into the game.
Ellen McGirt writes Fortune’s raceAhead, a daily newsletter about race and culture.