Colin Kaepernick protested police brutality and racial inequality while with the 49ers in 2016. He has not played in the NFL since that season.
Coach Kyle Shanahan came to the 49ers in 2017 and brought his own quarterbacks with him. But even though Kaepernick was no longer around the team, many of his former teammates, including Eric Reid, remained with the organization.
More than 20 players protested by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem before a game in Indianapolis that season, prompting Vice President Mike Pence to leave the stadium in a protest of his own.
“It’s three years later, and there's still some people not understanding what his message was,” Shanahan said of Kaepernick. “And, regardless, that’s too many people not understanding the message that everyone’s been giving for a long time. And Colin did it the strongest out of anyone, and people should respect him a ton for that and admire that.”
The state of race relations in the United States and what Kaepernick was saying in 2016 now are inescapable.
George Floyd's death while in the custody of Minneapolis police last week set off demonstrations and protests not only across the United States but around the world. Video surfaced that showed an officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck as he struggled to breathe. Shanahan said he has addressed the issue in virtual meetings with his players every day this week.
He spoke Thursday to Bay Area media on a video call.
“Regardless of whether you agree with how he did it or not, that doesn’t matter,” Shanahan said. “What Colin was protesting was something that should be respected by all humans. That did take a lot of courage. That is something that is 1,000-percent wrong and what he was trying to fix and bring light to.
“And, gosh, it was hard to bring light to the whole country because people didn’t want to totally hear it and it got diluted with so much different stuff.”
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Shanahan supported his players’ rights to protest -- in any form -- after becoming head coach.
“These were the guys who started it and it was very clear when they would articulate it, why they were doing it,” Shanahan said. “And so the whole debate on all the other stuff, the flag, everything like, people don’t want to hear that. What he was doing was a big deal.
"Whether you disagree with how he did it or not doesn’t matter.”
CEO Jed York announced Saturday the 49ers will be donating $1 million to local and national organizations committed to social change. He also committed support for the Players Coalition, which was founded in an effort to make an impact on social justice and racial equality at the federal, state and local levels through advocacy, awareness, education and allocation of resources.
When asked how he will handle situations if his players choose to protest, Shanahan said, “Same we always have, but probably with more passion.”
He said he believes the public has a better understanding now of the reasons for the protests.
“And I’m all for protest,” Shanahan said. “I’m all for change. I hope the protest cause change. Whatever we have to do to get the change, I’m for it. I know our organization is. I know Jed is. I know our players are. We always have been.
“What’s different now, it’s embarrassing to say, probably, but I think white people are more passionate about it now than then. And that’s our ignorance. And that’s what upsets black people, and they have every right to be upset because they haven’t just been telling us this the last few weeks.
"They’ve been telling us this since our grandparents. And I’ve been hearing it from every one of my friends since I was 14.”