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Being on the right side of history ain’t easy

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Both exiled from their professional sports during their athletic primes, Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick have more in common than we thought.

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There is a phrase called being “on the right side of history.” It’s not fun to be on the right side. You are not going to be praised. At least, not at the time.

Because you make others uncomfortable, you may even be hated. Being on the right side will probably cost you time, money, litigation, civil action, and maybe even your life.

As history has shown us, figures once perceived negatively by public opinion may one day be perceived positively. It’s all too common for someone’s life work not to be fully appreciated until long after their hard work is done.

In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Gallup poll of favorability was only 33% positive with 66% of Americans having a negative view of him. Today, the same Gallup poll shows 94% of Americans have a positive view of the same man they so dearly disliked over 50 years ago.

In 1967, boxer Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces on the basis of conscientious objector. At the time, the Vietnam War still had over 50% approval rating. Ali was indicted and convicted by a federal grand jury for the criminal offense of violating the Selective Service laws by refusing to be drafted.

Still just 25 years old and in his athletic boxing prime, Ali was systematically denied a boxing license by each state’s Athletic Commission and stripped of his title by the World Boxing Association. His forced exile from professional boxing would last until he was almost 30 years old.

It took two huge sea changes for Ali to regain public sympathy and support once more. The 1971 Supreme Court decision in Clay vs. United States, in which Ali’s conviction was overturned by a unanimous 8-0 ruling, further strengthened the already growing public sentiment that the Vietnam War wasn’t such a good idea after all.

It took four years for public opinion to shift in a way that transposed Muhammad Ali from a publicly despised convicted felon to heavyweight boxing icon. Something similar is happening today in the NFL.

Since opting out of his contract with the 49ers over three years ago, Colin Kaepernick remains an unsigned free agent. Never formally blackballed like Ali, Kaepernick’s unemployment status was glossed over by most media and dismissed as “performance related” by most football fans.

ESPN’s Max Kellerman perfectly encapsulated the irony of Kaepernick being essentially banned by the white power structure he was trying to dismantle in the first place.

That clip is from 2017 when Kaepernick was 29 years old. Today, at 32 years old, Kaepernick is still waiting for a phone call from an NFL team. But he seems closer to being signed today than he was after he first started taking a knee.

In 2016, only 28% of Americans agreed with Kaepernick’s stance. Even as recent as 2018, that number had barely increased to 35%. Today, with the BLM movement finally taking center stage, 52% of Americans now say Kaepernick’s kneeling is OK.

The seas have certainly changed over the past few years. In three years, public opinion has swayed from admonishing Kaepernick’s peaceful protest to admonishing New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees for refusing to agree with that peaceful protest.

It’s entirely possible that, in 50 years, we will be discussing Kaepernick much in the same way we talk about Muhammad Ali. Both were on the right side of history, but it took years of gradual public opinion sway to prove them right.