Earlier this week, Sports Illustrated released one of the most controversial covers they’ve put out in a long time, even though they probably didn’t necessarily think that it would be all that controversial when they were planning it. As a reaction to all of the protests that took place last weekend after Donald Trump came out and criticized NFL players for taking a knee during the national anthem prior to games, SI put together a cover with the title, “A NATION DIVIDED, SPORTS UNITED.” It featured LeBron James, Steph Curry, Roger Goodell, Steve Kerr, Michael Bennett, and Candace Parker on it, among others.
As soon as the SI cover started circulating on social media, the first question most people had was: “WTF is Roger Goodell doing on it?” While Goodell did release a statement and—sort of—distance himself and the NFL from Trump’s anti-protest comments, he hasn’t exactly gone out of his way to support the players who have protested racial injustices and police brutality over the last year. And lest you forget, he’s kept quiet with regards to the petition that a handful of players sent him over the summer asking for the NFL to devote an entire month to social activism. So his inclusion on the SI cover was puzzling at best and downright disrespectful at worst in the eyes of many.
It also didn’t take very long for people to start asking another question once they got a glance at the cover: “Where is Colin Kaepernick?” Kaepernick is obviously the reason that this SI cover even exists in the first place. If he doesn’t take a knee during the national anthem before a preseason game last season, and if he doesn’t continue to take a knee during the national anthem before every regular-season game last year, and if he doesn’t influence other players to start taking a knee during the national anthem before games, and if he doesn’t get blackballed by the NFL in the offseason for igniting the entire #TakeAKnee movement, there is no reason for SI to do a “NATION DIVIDED, SPORTS UNITED” cover. So—where is Colin Kaepernick?
A lot of people asked this question:
Hell, even Curry, who was featured front and center on the SI cover, thought it was completely idiotic for SI to run a cover like this without giving a nod to the guy who is responsible for it existing. He went off on the cover on Wednesday and accused SI of trying to capitalize on the moment rather than actually doing something impactful for the culture.
“That was terrible,” he said. “Just kind of capitalizing on the hoopla and the media and all that nonsense. The real people that understand exactly what’s been going on and who’s really been active and vocal and truly making a difference, if you don’t have Kaepernick front and center on that, something’s wrong. It’s kind of hard to see how certain narratives take place, being prisoners of the moment.”
On Thursday, SI attempted to cover its ass by having Executive Editor Steve Cannella put together a video to explain the magazine’s original intention when they first conceived the cover. And it’s a great video—if you’re a fan of hearing someone use a bunch of buzz words that sound important. You can hear all about the “enduring message” of unity that SI was trying to get across with their cover below or here.
But what about the omission of Kaepernick? Again: Where was he? Cannella touched on that, too, and in doing so, he tried to sell everyone on the idea that Kaepernick was on the cover, even if he wasn’t actually there in the physical form.
“In some ways, even though his picture is not there, Colin Kaepernick is there; I think we all know that,” he said. “Colin Kaepernick—for lack of a better word—was looming over everything that happened this past weekend, and looms over many of the issues in society right now.”
Cannella continued by saying that SI’s intention wasn’t to ignore Kaepernick (for the record, he was mentioned at length in the accompanying cover story). Rather, the magazine wanted to shine light on some of the other professional athletes who stepped up in his absence last weekend—since, again, he has essentially been blackballed by the NFL—and continued to carry out his message.
“I thought what we were trying to capture with this cover was the way new voices emerged this weekend,” he said.
And later, he once again tried to push the idea that Kaepernick was a part of the cover even though, well, he wasn’t.
“Colin Kaepernick is on that cover,” Cannella said. “Even if his face and his name aren’t there, we all know who stands behind this movement. We all know who got it started. Colin Kaepernick has many more brothers than he did a week ago.”
The problem with all of this is that by not including Kaepernick on the cover, SI—and those who are in favor of the message SI presented with its cover—are taking the focus away from what Kaepernick was protesting last season and instead turning it into a completely different issue. The “united” approach that SI took when it put its cover together is now leading to protests that really aren’t protests at all.
Kaepernick made it very clear why he was protesting shortly after his first protest went public.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” he said. “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…I have to stand up for people that are oppressed.”
So by pushing Kaepernick out of the spotlight—or in this case, off of the SI cover—you’re also pushing the message that he fought so hard to get out there last season out of the spotlight, too. And you’re replacing it with a different message that is overshadowing the one that should be front and center right now. Just like Kaepernick should be front and center on that SI cover.
More from Complex