Every previous generation of sports fans has seen the biggest social and political movements led by the greatest, most visible athletes. Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Bill Russell, Billie Jean King — that level of superstar.
That was then. This is now. This generation's athletes are walking in the footsteps of the former backup quarterback for the last-place 49ers. The player who stepped out on the limb first in the national pastime was a rookie part-time catcher for the last-place Athletics.
PHOTOS: Historic protests in NFL
Some 13 months ago, Kaepernick began sitting during the national anthem to protest racial injustice, and one of the many reactions was that he was such a fringe player at that point, he’d likely get cut soon, he’d lose his platform and never get the attention he sought, for whatever his motives were.
Flash forward to Week 3 of the 2017 NFL season, and that solo act of conscience was being mimicked in one way or another across the entirety of the nation’s most popular sport, and being debated loudly in every corner of American society … obviously including the White House.
To even question whether Kaepernick’s original act — or, for that matter, Kaepernick himself — was too small, insignificant, ineffective, meaningless and easy to ignore is to admit to one’s own ignorance. The silent protest by, at that time, a roster-bubble guy (despite his Super Bowl pedigree) has pushed buttons in the commissioner’s office, the owners’ suites and every locker room.
Sunday became "Choose Your Side” day, and it was easier to count which teams, which players and which owners made no gesture or statement than to count all the ones who did.
And it all happened without the open, public support of the marquee players who sell the league, the tickets, the cable packages and the game promos.
A year ago, it was suggested here that Kaepernick’s actions would never gain traction without the help of the NFL’s biggest names.
That was as wrong as a prediction could be.
Even on Sunday, after all the anticipation and teases and hints being analyzed, the most that was done by the likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and reigning MVP Matt Ryan was to link arms with teammates.
The other players — the more expendable, replaceable, vulnerable ones — were the ones kneeling, sitting and raising their fists, volunteering themselves as targets for those who opposed them, their cause, their method and their resistance to the president who had slandered them and demanded their firing.
There were plenty of excellent players making themselves heard, like the Bennett brothers, Malcolm Jenkins, DeSean Jackson and Julius Peppers among them. But they were joined by teammates who don’t even have that level of security. And all of them know that the player who started it is nowhere close to getting another NFL job.
Similarly in baseball, it was the barely-known Maxwell who took his stand by kneeling, and also little-known teammate Mark Canha who stood by him, hand on shoulder in support.
Baseball is bereft of African-American players, but not of racial minorities. Yet the players with the biggest names and voices ceded their platform and their loudspeaker to players who were obscure even after extensive Googling.
Somehow, the NBA ended up being the exception — the global superstars, LeBron James and Stephen Curry, brought their bullhorns this weekend, as Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul had a year earlier.
Otherwise, the new generation has ushered in a new kind of leader. It’s the kind that doesn't need an armload of trophies or a fistful or rings to get others to follow.
The leader can be the A’s part-time catcher. And he can take his lead from the 49ers quarterback who — as so many repeated this past offseason — got beaten out by Blaine Gabbert.