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Effects

In our orbit: Dave Zirin’s “The Kaepernick Effect”

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When Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel invited Dave Zirin in 2006 to become the magazine’s first sports editor in the magazine’s 141-year history, many readers scoffed. What a waste of valuable space! Sport was a distraction, it was argued, banal escapism, not worth the time of a reputable magazine. One reader condemned professional sport as the modern opiate of the masses.

Fast forward 10 years to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick who chooses to “take one knee” during the traditional pre-game national anthem. After this protest, sport and politics seem irrevocably linked. What better place to examine the gender, class and race inequalities that are stirring up society and the forces of resistance that oppose traditional norms and customs? Sporting protests are making headlines. ESPN starts a vertical in the race. The Washington Post now employs two writers for sports and racing. USA Today is hiring a racing and sports editor.

It would be impossible for The Nation not to cover sports by 2021.

When Zirin first started writing, he was a lonely voice, one of the very few journalists who focused on the rich intersection of sport, race, class, and gender. Kaepernick’s groundbreaking decision in 2016 was the moment Zirin’s monopoly was broken. The quarterback’s gesture sparked an awakening in sport and marked a change across the world. Taking a knee gave athletes at all levels a powerful new lever to demonstrate public support for racial justice.

In his twelfth and most important book to date, Zirin brings together a compelling collection of first-person stories from athletes who imitate Kaepernick’s protest. Zirin’s efforts to highlight their experiences began at the start of the pandemic when he begged his large following on social media to share stories of young athletes kneeling down. His DMs were soon flooded with students who wanted to share the “why” behind their protests. Their stories are all different, which gives them strength, but Zirin makes the central theme clear: a deep intolerance of injustice.

A strong advocate of the Howard Zinn School of “Folk History,” Zirin gives voice to a diverse group of high school, college, and professional athletes who have sparked important conversations, many of which have endured their own backlash without the financial isolation that the Kaepernick enjoys. These young student-athletes with everything to lose form the heroic core of Zirin’s inspiring new book.

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