There was little significant about the 49ers of 2016.

Frankly, the team was bad and thoroughly uninteresting. Well, on the field, anyway.

But, as it turned out, in my quarter-century of covering the NFL, there have been few times as memorable or consequential.

I have thought a lot about the movement that began that season when Colin Kaepernick was joined by Eric Reid in kneeling during the playing of the national anthem as a protest against social inequality and police brutality.

I grew up in the northern Sacramento Valley. Tehama County reported a black population of one percent in the 2010 census. It was not even close to being that diverse when I was living there. There were no black kids in my high school with an enrollment of 450.

Monte Poole, my colleague and friend, grew up in East Oakland -- Brookfield Village to be specific -- on a block where 14 of 16 families were black. In a high-school graduation class of more than 500, all but 27 were black.

So, we come from different worlds. But that 2016 season proved to me that, like Monte and myself, we all have more similarities than differences. We all play on the same team.

-- Matt Maiocco

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It was four years ago last week that the world lost one of the brightest lights it had ever glimpsed. Was he perfect? Nah. Definitely not. He did not, after all, solve the abiding problems of our troubled planet.

 

Muhammad Ali did, however, spend most of his 74 years trying to show us the way.

A confession: Meeting Ali in 1987, barely two years into the job, still is the most memorable moment of my career. Upon shaking his hand and joining his small dinner party at a café in Oakland, I immediately knew it could get no better.

Even though he was a three-time heavyweight champ, Ali transcended boxing and sports partly because he was a uniquely spectacular fighter with impeccable features but mostly because his vision went so far beyond the ring.

A firebrand seeking justice and peace always collects powerful adversaries. Ali knew this and didn’t flinch. The same could be said of Colin Kaepernick.

-- Monte Poole

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

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It never was framed as a protest against the national anthem, the flag or the military, of course. But that is how opponents chose to identify it. In fact, one of the visions that stuck with me is what happened that first night in San Diego when Kaepernick took a knee during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner.

He sat on the bench largely unnoticed during the national anthem for the 49ers’ first three preseason games. But after meeting with former Green Beret Nate Boyer, the agreement was made it would be better to take a knee.

In the third quarter of the game, which happened to take place on Military Appreciation Night, Kaepernick stood on the 49ers sideline during the singing of “God Bless America.” That’s right, he stood. Then, he applauded the performance of Petty Officer 1st Class Steven Powell from the U.S. Navy.

That caught my attention. And I asked Kaepernick about it afterward.

“I’m not anti-America,” Kaepernick said. “I love America. I love people. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to help make America better. I think having these conversations helps everybody have a better understanding of where everybody is coming from.”

Monte and I have been fortunate to have seen and experienced the best and worst of what this country has to offer through our travels while covering sports over the decades. We are having the conversation that Kaepernick urged four years ago.

-- Matt Maiocco

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Didn’t Kap follow Ali’s blueprint? Dance with fame, embrace enlightenment, find your mission and follow your heart. If those principles are your bedrock, the most challenging component –- unwavering courage –- comes naturally and cannot be taken away.

 

Ali was, along with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the most polarizing individual in America, loved by most of the proletariat, detested by all of the power structure. Declining to participate in an unpopular war, Ali was stripped of his belt, prosecuted and persecuted and denied his career for 43 prime months. Black men have been met with punitive conduct from Day 1 in America, and Ali surely was punished as much for his hubris as his “crime.”

He survived. More to the point, he won. Beat the United States government. All but the most recalcitrant among us eventually acknowledged what Ali believed all along. That his cause put him on the right side of history.

This is what awaits Kaepernick. Can you see it coming? The global message sent over the past week by multiracial, multicultural and multinational demonstrations pleading for racial equality has forced some of his loudest detractors to see the honor and grace of his ways.

Vice President Mike Pence, who fled an NFL stadium in Indianapolis in protest of two dozen 49ers players and staff members dropping to one knee during the national anthem, this week claimed via Twitter to “always stand for the right of Americans to peacefully protest and let their voices be heard.”

Kaepernick’s protest was peaceful, a solemn plea urging better of a system that for centuries has treated black faces with more disregard than white faces. It obviously was true during slavery, has remained true even as military personnel of all colors fought for the same freedoms, and still exists today –- poignantly so last month in George Floyd’s fatal interaction with Minneapolis police.

-- Monte Poole

[RELATED: Five NFL teams that should sign Kaepernick]

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It was on an early October day in 2017. I was in Indianapolis, just a few blocks from the state capital building where Pence served as governor. We were under the same roof where the Colts play their home games. But not for long.

His recent words do not match the actions of what I witnessed that day.

He stood for the right of Americans to peacefully protest, all right.

He stood.

Then, he walked out of Lucas Oil Stadium in a carefully orchestrated -– and costly –- protest against Americans’ right to peacefully protest. His premeditated protest came at a reported cost of $325,000 to taxpayers, a price that included hotel, travel and additional security measures.

The members of the 49ers were protesting racial inequality and police brutality. Kaepernick no longer was on the team, but his message remained loud.

Lesser quarterbacks have been signed and taken spots on NFL rosters the past three seasons. Kaepernick, 32, remains unemployed through what should have been his prime seasons.

 

The NFL reached a settlement with Kaepernick and Reid last year for an undisclosed amount over claims the league’s 32 teams colluded to keep them out of the league. Reid played the past three seasons with the Carolina Panthers. He currently is a free agent.

The public controversy had little to do with what Kaepernick and Reid were protesting. The criticism came from how they protested.

Pence explained at the time he was so offended by the actions he witnessed on the 49ers sideline that he left the premises before the game even began.

President Donald Trump made it clear just weeks earlier during a speech in Alabama what he thought of any NFL player who peacefully protests.

“Get that son of a b---h off the field,” he declared.

That leaves very little room for interpretation from the United States’ top elected official about his tolerance for peaceful protest. And he still continues to express similar views, never choosing to invoke First Amendment rights.

This should not be about politics. There should be no politics at all inserted into the simple goal of equality for all. This should not be a controversial stance.

But we are still there. And it’s not a good place to be when a form of distraction is created, such as ...  "I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America.”

-- Matt Maiocco

[RELATED: How Kaepernick solved Ben Carson's 'America' problem in 2016]

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The march to freedom, theoretically symbolized by the flag, always has been treacherous for black people. Millions have been murdered by white men in an effort to maintain their place atop the United States hierarchy.

Jesse Owens won a sack full of gold medals in the 1936 Olympics, shaming Adolf Hitler and his Nazi ideology, only to come home and be told where he could and could not live. What he could or could not say to a white man or woman, which hotels he could and could not enter, where he could and could not have a meal.

A decade later, World War II veterans were coming home to a hero’s welcome –- unless they were black. They got the Owens reception.

A generation later, Cassius Clay returned to Kentucky with a gold medal from the 1960 Rome Olympics and received almost the exact same Jim Crow treatment. This after he stood on the medal stand draped in the red, white and blue of the USA.

How does that not make a man burn from within?

How does that not infuriate a people that had endured through 14-year-old Emmitt Till being lynched over a lie? Or Medgar Evers being killed for fighting discrimination? Or, in 1964, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner being murdered for registering voters.

 

Nearly three full generations later, George Floyd was taken from the world for ... what?

It’s enough to enrage the multicultural society we have in 2020 America. Which explains the protests in every corner of the nation, and beyond our shores. The message from today’s youth is that change is coming.

Kaepernick is but the first sports figure of his generation to be so bold.

-- Monte Poole

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Kaepernick exposed himself to criticism. Perhaps, some of it justified. He defended his decision not to vote. That is a stance with which I wholeheartedly disagree.

But anything else he did that was viewed as polarizing -– namely, his choices of socks and T-shirts –- were weaponized by his opponents as a distraction from the true message that everyone deserves to be treated equally.

The view Drew Brees expressed last week goes like this: If you are disrespecting the flag, disrespecting the national anthem, I will not give you the respect of listening to your protest.

Of course, Brees received tremendous criticism, including from many of his peers. He clearly had not listened in 2016 and ’17. To his credit, he later apologized and even sought to educate the president.

Admittedly, that was the part of the protest that made me uneasy, too. One day, I pulled Reid aside and asked him the simple question: Why must you kneel, of all times, during the national anthem?

“Our goal is to make people uncomfortable about the issues,” Reid answered. “But the anthem is just a vehicle to get us to have those conversations. It’s the platform we have. It’s the only time we have to get the eyeballs on us to do that.

“If we just did locker room talks afterward, nobody would even know. Strategically, this is the only way we thought we could do it.”

After listening and carefully considering his explanation, my perspective changed. Reid was correct. This is how the message could be conveyed to more people whose minds were open enough to listen for themselves. Those who did not want to listen in the first place could concoct their own reasons for being dismissive. And that is what continues to happen to this day.

-- Matt Maiocco

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So, now, with unrest and outrage rising on every continent, many who were quick to vilify Kap for being “disrespectful” to the flag are a bit more willing to accept his form of protest, which came straight from the book of Dr. King, who borrowed from the book of Gandhi.

It took 15 years after his life was taken by a white assassin’s bullet for a posthumous apology to Dr. King in the form of a national holiday in his name.

 

It took about 15 years for Ali to receive the exalted status he had earned, and another 10 or so before he was lighting the Olympic torch in the glow of breathless adoration. He had by then brokered peace on foreign soil, forcing America to accept his positive impact.

Kaepernick’s efforts have been praised overseas, by organizations recognizing those fighting the good fight. All he wants is liberty and justice for all, the American promise and logically a universal goal.

His day in America will come. It’s already on the horizon.

-- Monte Poole