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Original Issue

Truth Teller

His message misappropriated, his protest misinterpreted, COLIN KAEPERNICK cost himself fortune and attracted unwanted fame, a price he was willing to pay to shake up the world

If I was walking down the highway with a quarter in my pocket and a briefcase full of truth, I'd be so happy.

—Muhammad Ali, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Feb. 19, 1968

COLIN KAEPERNICK made his truth known when he first decided to not stand for the national anthem. He had a lot of football left to play and a lot more money to make when he made his decision. It was late August 2016. People who were anonymous in life had become famous in death. Alton Sterling. Walter Scott. Tamir Rice. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. They were unarmed African-American men who died at the hands of police. Before a preseason game in San Francisco, Kaepernick, a 28-year-old quarterback for the 49ers, took a seat on the bench during "The Star-Spangled Banner."

It took two weeks for anyone from the media to ask him about it. Kaepernick explained that he was making a statement about inequality and social justice, that he "wouldn't show pride in a country that oppresses black people and people of color.

"To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street, and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder." Before the next game, on Sept. 1, he knelt as the anthem played.

In the last 16 months Kaepernick's truth has been twisted, distorted and used for political gain. It has cost him at least a year of his NFL career and the income that should have come with it. But still, it is his truth. He has not wavered from it. He does not regret speaking it. He has caused millions of people to examine it. And, quietly, he has donated $1 million to support it (page 63).

For his steadfastness in the fight for social justice, for his adherence to his beliefs no matter the cost, Colin Kaepernick is the recipient of the 2017 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED Muhammad Ali Legacy Award. Each year SI and the Ali family honor a figure who embodies the ideals of sportsmanship, leadership and philanthropy and who has used sports as a platform for changing the world. "I am proud to be able to present this to Colin for his passionate defense of social justice and civil rights for all people," says Lonnie Ali, Muhammad's widow. "Like Muhammad, Colin is a man who stands on his convictions with confidence and courage, undaunted by the personal sacrifices he has had to make to have his message heard. And he has used his celebrity and philanthropy to the benefit of some of our most vulnerable community members."

Kaepernick could not have envisioned the firestorm he kindled. While many have stoked it, his first explanation remains his truth: "This is not something that I am going to run by anybody. I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed.... If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right."

Kaepernick kept his job for a season before being blackballed by the NFL—and yes, it's clear to many that he has been blackballed. Scott Tolzien, Cody Kessler and Matt Cassel have thrown passes in the league this year, yet nobody has tried to sign Kaepernick, who is fifth in history in touchdown-to-interception ratio. He has been called a distraction, though his coach last year, Chip Kelly, says he caused "zero distraction" with the Niners, and his teammates echo that. Most NFL players would rather be "distracted" by Kaepernick than try to tackle the guy returning a Brock Osweiler interception.

KAEPERNICK HAS paid a price beyond missed games and lost paychecks. He has been battered by critics who don't want to understand him. Some say Kaepernick hates America; he believes he is trying to make it better. Others say he hates the military, but many veterans support him.

Kaepernick has listened to President Trump take credit for his unemployment. He has seen others falsely claim that he has disappointed the white parents who raised him. He has heard people attack him because he wore socks that depicted pigs in police hats and a T-shirt with Fidel Castro's picture on it. (He has said the socks were meant to represent "rogue cops" and that while he supports Castro's investment in education, "I never said I support the oppressive things [Castro] did.")

Nobody claims Kaepernick is perfect. Reasonable people can be upset that he did not vote in 2016. But the Ali Legacy Award does not honor perfection, and the criticisms of Kaepernick are fundamentally misguided: The protest was never about him. It is about Philando Castile and the world's highest incarceration rate and a country that devalues education and slides too easily into violence.

Kaepernick is not Ali, but they both sacrificed for the greater good at a time when many Americans could not see it was a greater good. When Ali was drafted into the military in 1967 and refused to report, much of the country disapproved. He explained by saying, "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?"

That seems reasonable today, but at the time, one prominent American said, "The tragedy to me is, [Ali] has made millions of dollars off of the American public, and now he's not willing to show his appreciation to a country that's giving him, in my view, a fantastic opportunity." That sounds a lot like what people have said about Kaepernick. The man who said it about Ali: Jackie Robinson.

Time ultimately shined a softer light on Ali. For the last 40 years of his life he was the most popular athlete in the world. But in the late 1960s, he was deeply divisive and his future was uncertain.

Ali was 25 when he was banned from boxing and 28 when he returned. But instead of focusing on the prime years of his career that he lost, Ali talked about what he had gained: a greater sense of self, and of purpose, than he could have found in the ring. He risked prison time. He did not know if he would ever be allowed to fight again. But he was clinging to his truth. As he later told SI's George Plimpton, "Every man wonders what he is going to do when he is put on the chopping block, when he's going to be tested."

Someday, America may well be a better place because of Colin Kaepernick. This is hard to see now, just as it was in Ali's time. But we are having conversations we need to have, about changes we need to make. Police officers, politicians and citizens can work together to create a safer, fairer, more civil society. Kaepernick did not want to sacrifice his football career for this. But he did it anyway. It is a rare person who gives up what he loves for what he believes.

"Colin is a man who stands on his convictions with confidence and courage, undaunted BY THE PERSONAL SACRIFICES he has had to make to have his message heard," says Lonnie Ali.