THE BLOG
09/30/2016 04:57 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2017

Colin Kaepernick: Quarterback, Activist And Norm Entrepreneur

Colin Kaepernick deserves our support and admiration. It is now common knowledge that the San Francisco 49ers quarterback chose not to stand during the national anthem--thus eschewing a well-entrenched norm in which football players express their patriotism by standing during the anthem--no matter what. By not standing, Kaepernick protested racial injustice and acted in solidarity with those who have experienced police brutality and other forms of discrimination. In Kaepernick's words, he was not going "to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color." Others soon followed, creating a beautiful cascade of activism. Four team members of the Miami Dolphins knelt during the anthem, and later members of the Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots and Tennessee Titans raised their fists in solidarity. The practice of kneeling during the anthem spread to high school football teams, eager to come together in solidarity for racial justice. In effect, Kaepernick found a mechanism to move us closer to racial justice, and to act in solidarity with the victims of injustice.

In 1996, legal theorist Cass Sunstein coined the term "norm entrepreneur" to refer to people who make an effort to change norms. According to Sunstein, "People's private judgments and desires diverge greatly from public appearances. For this reason, current social states can be far more fragile than is generally thought--as small shocks to publicly endorsed norms and roles decrease the cost of displaying deviant norms, and rapidly bring about large-scale changes in publicly displayed judgment and desires. Hence societies experience norm bandwagons and norm cascades." The former creates slow and gradual change while the latter constitutes rapid change.

There are risks for Kaepernick and the athletes who act in solidarity with him. Some may lose endorsements and other financial benefits. Others may lose their fan base, and still others may be sidelined or suffer similar professional harms. But if enough professional athletes act in solidarity with Kaepernick it will be much harder to retaliate against them. Ironically, once a tipping point has been reached, standing up during the anthem may come to signify support for the status quo rather than for freedom, equality and justice. The 49ers also donated money to charities that work to fight racial injustice, and so has Kaepernick. Their willingness to assume costs for the sake of racial justice is an act of moral courage.

Viewing Kaepernick and those who bravely join him through the lens of norm entrepreneurship can help us to reinterpret behavior that some find morally repugnant as brave, admirable and timely. Recent protests against police brutality, discrimination and the surging Black Lives Matter movement demonstrate the willingness of people to reject the status quo in very public ways, whether by refusing to attend the Oscars, kneeling during the anthem or protesting together with Black Lives Matter. This cascade of activism shows that the time is ripe for substantial norm change. Far from deserving our criticism and contempt, Kaepernick deserves our gratitude, admiration and support for his moral leadership. In this instance, kneeling should not be seen as destructive of patriotism, as disrespectful of our vets, or as a rejection of American values. Patriotic showmanship will do little to further the values patriotism is designed to protect. Mere showmanship could lull us into believing the fiction that those values have been realized. Kaepernick is building, not destroying. He has assumed personal and professional costs to create a more just, equal and inclusive society, to be enjoyed by all people. Given the potential for all people to benefit, fairness considerations require us to share the burden of norm change with Colin Kaepernick. Those who resist norm change may find that they are not only on the wrong side of justice, but also free riders on the sacrifices of norm entrepreneurs.