By Sarah Allen / @spallen76
A year ago this month, NFL Network reporter Steve Wyche broke a story entitled, “Colin Kaepernick explains why he sat during the national anthem.” Prior to this story being released, Kaepernick had been laying low while he recovered from his various surgeries in the offseason. Moreover, he had just started to emerge as a socially conscious activist through social media with various quotes from Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as posts regarding the non-convictions of officers involved in the deaths of Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray.
Following Kaepernick’s first pre-season game with the Green Bay Packers, he showed up to the press conference wearing a Malcolm X hat and a t-shirt that displayed Fidel Castro with Malcolm X that he would end up addressing at a later press conference. The next morning, Wyche’s story on Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem went viral and it appeared that Kaepernick had stepped into a firestorm of criticism and contentment. Yet, the quarterback was also met with the support of fans and supporters all over the country, many who later ran out and bought up his jersey, topping all other players in merchandise sales in the NFL.
At this point, Kaepernick would not only be known as just a football player but as someone who would join the ranks of Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.
Wyche reflects on the last year since breaking the controversial story and the ways in which it has impacted Kaepernick, both professionally and personally.
TSFJ: Can you briefly discuss the nature of your job and how you ended up covering the 49ers games you mentioned in your initial story that ran on August 27, 2016?
Wyche: I’m a field reporter, host analyst for the NFL Network and the majority of what I do is I go to games. I’m Los Angeles based, I cover mainly the western region of the US when I’m on the field and I happened to be at the game where Kaepernick and the 49ers were playing the Green Bay Packers because it was his first game that he was going to play in and he had a bunch of surgeries all off season.
He had missed the first two preseason games. So the interest was to go up there and check out Kaepernick. It’s his first time, they’ve got this quarterback battle and everyone had said he could fit well into (then-head coach) Chip Kelly’s system. ‘Let’s go see how it goes.’ That’s the only reason I was there; no camera. It was simply just to go observe and write something off the game.
TSFJ: The first time you saw Kaepernick sitting, did you notice he was up to something at that time or did it not occur to you until that next time?
Wyche: I had been notified once I got there that Kap had not actually stood for the national anthem, at least one of the previous preseason games, if not both. This was the third preseason game I was at. So I was looking to see if he was going to stand for this one. Over the summer when I had gone to visit the 49ers a couple times, I heard from some people up there that Kap was really getting involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. He seemed a little more liberated as a person. So I was wondering if he’s not standing for the anthem, maybe he’s got some feelings about the flag.
The only reason people really didn’t notice the first two games was because he was hurt. He was in sweats so maybe they didn’t know if he was just kinda sitting down, tying his shoe. They weren’t sure but now he was in uniform and he did sit down. So I said to the PR staff, ‘Look, I’m telling you right now, it might be something completely harmless but after the game, if nobody asks him about this in the regular post-game news conference, I’d like to speak to Kap alone.’
I knew Kap. I’ve had a relationship with Kap since he came out of college in Nevada. I had spoken to him in football scenarios before and also in some other settings; awards ceremonies and things like that. We always had a good relationship.
TSFJ. Why do you think you were the reporter to break this story? Was it that Kaepernick had become so obscure that no one was paying attention to him?
Wyche: No, it was more of me having a heads up that this would happen. Nobody knew and I was doing my job. I think if anybody had asked him, he would have told them how he felt. He probably felt comfortable in saying some of the things he said about law enforcement, about why he was doing this; knowing that I would handle this with a perspective that wasn’t just short sighted.
TSFJ: Kaepernick said, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” That’s a very impactful statement coming from a player who we had not seen or heard much of at that time. What was your initial feeling when he first said that?
Wyche: My initial feeling was, ‘Ok, this is a protest of some sort. This is a personal protest of the flag.’
Knowing how some people are going to feel about that, I knew this was going to be an explosive story immediately. I’m old enough to know when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf did this for the Denver Nuggets and how a lot of people reacted. This is the NFL. This was a guy who was a former superstar. So I knew this was big and we talked about that a lot. He knew the potential blowback. I don’t think he knew it was going to be as enormous as it was but he knew this was going to create kind of a big storm.
TSFJ: It’s been a year since you broke this story and in that time a lot of things have taken place; including the election of a President who has essentially publicly endorsed police brutality. Where do you think Kaepernick would be today had he not chosen to protest the national anthem but rather took another path?
Wyche: If he never did this, he would be on a roster playing in the NFL right now. We could sit here and tell ourselves, ‘Yeah, it’s because he’s not a great quarterback anymore.’ The element of him not being in the NFL right now is because a lot of owners and a lot of teams are afraid of fan blowback, they are afraid of law enforcement not coming in and securing their stadiums, not giving them police escorts because of some of the things he said between then and now about law enforcement. Let’s make no bones about it.
I’m glad you also brought up the political aspect of it because remember when Colin Kaepernick did this we were on the precipice of our national election. This was still the primary season, so the timing of all of this I think really ratcheted up emotions on top of everything else that was going on in the country.
TSFJ: How do you feel knowing your story holds so much significance in terms of the way it may have contributed to the trajectory of Kaepernick’s journey in his career and ultimately his life?
Wyche: I was doing my job. He didn’t have to say that to me. He decided to tell me and tell the story and everything else is just the fallout from it. I reported what he said and how he felt and if you go back and read the original article, I think the context it was put in painted exactly why he was doing this in a very fair way.
It’s funny because I go back and I hear things people say and I go back and I re-read the story. So many people are missing what he actually said in that initial story because they can’t get around the fact that he didn’t stand up for the national anthem.
TSFJ: What are they missing?
Wyche: They are missing the fact that he’s doing this because of treatment of minorities by law enforcement, but if you read the story it says that he understood that there was going to be blowback. He understood that ‘hey if I lose my endorsements, if I lose my career, at least I’m going to stand up for something.’ There’s nothing in that original article that honestly hasn’t played out.
A year ago, Kaepernick knew the majority of the possibilities good, bad or indifferent that can happen by him taking the stance. If I hadn’t noticed it on that game, somebody would’ve eventually noticed it. I just happened to notice it and have an honest conversation with Kap. Even when the interview was over, we talked for a long time; just a man-to-man; middle aged man to a young guy conversation. He’s very smart. He did not do this as a knee-jerk reaction. It was very well-thought out and I think for the most part, he understood everything that could happen.
TSFJ: Will you do any follow up stories on this?
Wyche: I would love to. As we’ve seen, he hasn’t spoken to anybody. So I’ve been in touch with him and he basically said he’s not ready to say anything right now but at some point he will.
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