Book Review: Dave Zirin’s “The Kaepernick Effect”

Dave Zirin would like to remind you that Colin Kaepernick is not the only athlete to take a knee for a cause he believed in. Dave Zirin would also like to remind you that, in far less publicized cases, countless other athletes have followed in Kaepernick’s footsteps and felt repercussions for doing so.  These cases were infinitely less documented… until now, thanks to Dave Zirin.

Colin Kaepernick might be the only NFL player who lost his job… allegedly… for taking a knee.  In doing so, he became the posterchild, martyr and leader for that stance.  He is not, however, the only one to be criticized or receive death threats for it.  Dave Zirin would like to introduce you to all the others who have in his latest project, The Kaepernick Effect.

Dave Zirin is a sports writer/analyst of the highest order.  While his position on the political spectrum might not jibe with yours, his resume is prolific and undeniable.  If you haven’t read A People’s History of Sports in the United States, Jim Brown: Last Man Standing or Things that Make White People Uncomfortable (co-written with Michael Bennett), then you, as a sports fan, are doing yourself an injustice, which oddly enough is what Zirin’s latest work is about.  He has also written The John Carlos Story and What’s My Name, Fool: Sports and Resistance in the United States.  Are you sensing a theme?  Good, because that is Zirin’s intent with every one of his books sent to press.  He is unapologetic for portraying the world as he sees it, which is far too often how it actually is, all the while challenging his reader to think in the process.

Imagine that.  All that from an author.

 “This book is a look at those who took that step to kneel during the anthem, why they did it, and how it affected their lives.  It also tells the story about the changing politics of sports, patriotism and youth who are transforming the very marrow of this country.”

Colin Kaepernick’s is more than just a story about a man who took a knee, “disrespected the flag” and lost his job because of it (again, allegedly).  In The Kaepernick Effect, Dave Zirin decided to take things one giant step further to see how Kap’s actions affected other athletes, young and old, black and white, male and female, across the country.  Whether or not you agree with what Kaepernick did, or how he did it, there are a fair number of people in this country who followed suit, which is exactly what so many anti-Kaepernickers feared, that his gesture would mean something or, dare I say, start a movement.  The Kaepernick Effect tells their stories.

Zirin intends to re-open dialogue with this work, a dialogue one could argue was lost since the very first kneel.  And while Kap’s gesture or even this book may offend you, it shouldn’t offend you as much as reading the accounts of countless, young American adults of different race, creed, color and gender who stood up for what they thought was right, only to receive death threats from those twice their age and of a considerably lighter skin tone.

“It was not just right-wingers, frothing sports columnists and a racist president putting Kaepernick on blast.  Liberals, people who ostensibly should have been supporting Kaepernick, also critiqued his actions.  Their most common response to the anthem protest against police violence was “I support his goal, but not his methods.” 

You’ll find that retort runs common throughout this book, the can’t you just do it this way? response as Zirin interviews student athletes in and from Cleveland, Ohio; Beaumont, Texas; Camden, New Jersey; Detroit, Michigan; Seattle, Washington; Minneapolis, Minnesota; New Orleans, Louisiana; Niksayuna, New York; Naperville, Illinois, Atlanta and Kennesaw, Georgia; Ferguson, Missouri; Lincoln, Nebraska and Storm Lake, Iowa.

Slashed tires, death threats, expulsions, investments withdrawn, scholarships revoked, reduced looks as a pro and, of course, the tried and true “If you don’t like it, leave America” tirades, all forms of an unconscionable backlash. For every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

“I’m just thankful for the space to be able to speak my truth and say how I feel and know that I’ll be judged only on the validity of my arguments, not by what I look like” one Howard University cheerleader told Zirin in his case study.  “I can’t force someone to understand something they don’t want to understand.  I felt like a lot of people couldn’t relate because it’s not a problem that affects them directly,” said another.  “No one asked why we were doing it.  They just came and attacked us.  We didn’t think that people would attack kids like that, as adults,” recounted yet another of their experience.  This book is littered with both disturbing and inspirational tales of young men and women who took a stand for something they believed, and the unimaginable, or perhaps far too imaginable, backlash that ensued.

“I lost sponsorships.  I lost funding from grants.  I lost a lot by making a stand.”

Zirin uncovers case after countless case of athletes who ran into life-threatening issues with their form of protest, and while this may sound repetitive, that’s because it happened that many times.  These are actual people who were threatened for peacefully protesting in a manner they felt was right.  They were open to sparking constructive dialogue only to have it far too often result in a lack thereof.

He interviews professional athletes you’ve heard of like Michael Bennett, Kenny Stills, an enlightening must-read with Megan Rapinoe along with one of the founding fathers of sports protest, John Carlos, but also countless others you haven’t, whose stories are equally as telling and equally as important.  Kaepernick’s intent was not to bring attention to himself but rather to create discourse.  Zirin furthers that directive in print.

After sharing the experiences of athletes in both high school and college, Zirin concludes by discussing actions of the professional athlete, where the stakes are considerably higher.  “It’s not politics they don’t want in the sports world.  It’s a certain kind of politics.  It’s resistance politics.  The platform athletes enjoy must be used to either sell products or mimic the politics of the bosses, or a price will be paid.  The athletic industrial complex, including their allies in the media, immediately went into motion to ensure that Kaepernick would become a cautionary tale.”

The Kaepernick Effect might not be Zirin’s best work – his is a rather impressive and expansive bibliography – but it his most ambitious.  It follows suit with his other works but from an altogether different angle.  Far more human, much more personal.  The Kaepernick Effect is Dave Zirin’s promise to ensure these stories remain unforgotten. 

Few other writers would dare take on a project of such scope.  In that sense, The Kaepernick Effect is unlike anything he’s ever done.  It is Zirin’s way of shaking the tree and taking a knee, raising his gloved fist in the air by sharing the tales of all those who did the same.  I commend him, and them, for doing so. 

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11 Replies to “Book Review: Dave Zirin’s “The Kaepernick Effect””

  1. Thanks Rev. This book goes to the top of my reading list along with Colson Whiteheads new book.

  2. I put this book on my reading list. I want to try to understand the backlash of the constitutional.right of peaceful prorest.
    Thanks for the heads up!

  3. I have put this book on my reading list. I want to try to understand the backlash associated with the constitutional right of peaceful protest.

  4. Lol, Deac…

    Did you mean to comment four times or are you just happy to see me?

    No, but seriously, I’ve been having some spam problems with the site lately. Godforsaken internet. Have you been having issues leaving comments? If so, what’s it sayin’?

    Go figure. I finally get Zirin to visit the site and he’s spammed for life. Woe is me!

  5. Great post SC! Can’t wait to read this book. Tell him it would make a great documentary ( if they already haven’t started one).

  6. MJ…

    I’m biased but I think most anyone will enjoy reading Zirin.

    I think what would shock you most, and you’re welcome to borrow my copy, is how many kids… KIDS… received death threats for what they did.

    Not sure that’s exactly what they meant by constructive dialogue.

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