One year later, Steve Wyche reflects on breaking the Colin Kaepernick story
Reporter details what led to the biggest story in sports and discusses its aftermath
NFL Network and NFL.com reporter Steve Wyche had been paying attention to Colin Kaepernick’s social media posts during 2016.
The San Francisco 49ers quarterback had not been active in a game since November 2015, when he was put on injured reserve and underwent surgeries on his left shoulder, left knee and right thumb. But Kaepernick was actively discussing social justice topics on Instagram and Twitter.
When Kaepernick was cleared to participate in individual drills on June 8 during 49ers minicamp, that was the big story for most NFL reporters, who wrote about him fighting for his starting job after being replaced by Blaine Gabbert. Besides watching how Kaepernick progressed on the field, Wyche, who has covered Kaepernick since the 2011 Senior Bowl, also decided to observe the quarterback’s social commentary during the break between minicamp and training camp.
Wyche saw the quarterback’s commentary on Alton Sterling’s death at the hands of two Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officers; Philando Castile’s killing a day later by a Minnesota police officer in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old after a traffic stop; Charles Kinsey being shot by police in North Miami, Florida, even though he had his hands up and was lying on the ground; and the jury’s decision in the Freddie Gray trial.
“I was thinking that maybe Kaep is starting to find his voice,” Wyche, who broke the news of Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem on Aug. 27, 2016, recalled. “He’s seen what all of us saw, and it’s really just touched a nerve.
“Did I ever at the time think it was going to lead to him not standing for the national anthem? No. Absolutely not, I didn’t.”
Kaepernick began his protest in San Francisco’s first preseason game against the Houston Texans on Aug. 14, 2016. He sat on the bench for that game and the 49ers’ game against the Denver Broncos the following week, but it mostly went unnoticed because he wasn’t dressed for the games.
NFL Media colleague Mike Garafolo alerted Wyche that the former Super Bowl quarterback had not stood for the national anthem during the preseason.
So Wyche kept an eye out during the 49ers’ third preseason game against the Green Bay Packers on Aug. 26, 2016, and sure enough, there was Kaepernick sitting down in between two coolers during the anthem. Niners Nation’s beat reporter Jennifer Lee Chan snapped a picture of San Francisco’s national anthem formation as a part of a joke about how former Los Angeles Rams coach Jeff Fisher would not approve, and in the process captured Kaepernick’s protest.
“‘OK,'” Wyche said to himself, “‘this might be bigger than him just not standing up.’ … My point of reference went back to the NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf.”
The Art of breaking news
Having been at the precipice of a number of breaking sports stories — Michael Jordan’s partial ownership of the Washington Wizards in 2000 as a reporter for The Washington Post and Michael Vick’s indictment for dogfighting in 2007 as a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example — Wyche was ready as he mapped out his plan of action.
He called the NFL Media desk to tell them what he thought this could be, and that they had better be ready to handle a big story. During the game, Wyche began researching Abdul-Rauf, the Denver Nuggets star who viewed the American flag as a symbol of racism and oppression, received death threats over his protest and was eventually shunned by the NBA. Abdul-Rauf cited his Muslim faith as a reason for not standing during the anthem.
“My emotion was, let’s make sure to put this in the proper context, because history has shown us that when people have tread on the flag or the national anthem, the emotional reaction is very, very explosive,” Wyche explained. “So let’s put this in the proper context, let’s not make any judgments, let’s play it fair, let’s play it objectively.”
Next, Wyche went to the 49ers’ media relations department, explaining that what’s happening could be a big story and that he needed to speak to Kaepernick after the game. Wyche also needed a statement from the Niners.
“That’s what you do as a journalist, you try to get all sides to everything,” Wyche said. “How is the team going to feel? How are they going to handle it? Did they know this is coming?
“It had every angle covered, and that was part of it as well. So journalistically speaking, besides knowing I was on a big story, I went through all of the proper journalistic procedures for fairness, accuracy and just being a professional.”
Wyche went down to the 49ers’ auditorium, where the team conducts its postgame news conferences. No one asked Kaepernick about his decision to sit, so now it was on. The pair stood eight feet away from the auditorium’s doors, and as Wyche began speaking to Kaepernick, media members and team affiliates were filing out of the room.
Wyche estimates that the pair spoke on the record for approximately 10 minutes and conversationally for four to five minutes, but what came of that brief conversation has dominated the sports landscape for a year.
Per Wyche’s original report:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “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.”
Kaepernick said that he is aware of what he is doing and that he knows it will not sit well with a lot of people, including the 49ers. He said that he did not inform the club or anyone affiliated with the team of his intentions to protest the national anthem.
“This is not something that I am going to run by anybody,” he said. “I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.”
Kaepernick said that he has thought about going public with his feelings for a while but that “I felt that I needed to understand the situation better.”
He said that he has discussed his feelings with his family and, after months of witnessing some of the civil unrest in the U.S., decided to be more active and involved in rights for black people. Kaepernick, who is biracial, was adopted and raised by white parents and siblings.
Looking back, Wyche described Kaepernick as “very passionate” and “measured.”
“His words were very well thought out, but they did not seem orchestrated,” Wyche said. “He clearly was speaking from the heart. He wasn’t animated. He wasn’t eager. He was just telling me how he felt.”
The quiet storm
Residual beer cans littered the parking lot that Wyche walked across as he made his way back to his hotel room where his wife and youngest son were sleeping.
Except for a few streetlights, it was dark, with the temperature somewhere in the 60s. Wyche always walks after covering an event, and that night, he especially needed time to decompress.
“Now it was just the waiting game as to when it was going to hit,” the 51-year-old Wyche said. “The adrenaline was high, because you know as a journalist when you’ve got a big scoop and you’ve got an even bigger story that’s going to have legs to it. You know you’ve got to be ready for the follow-up the next day, and that’s kind of what I was thinking at that point.”
Wyche was able to sleep, but not for very long. On Aug. 27, 2016, at 10:17 a.m., he tweeted out his exclusive with Kaepernick.
“It was funny,” Wyche said, “By then the word was already out that Kap had not stood for the national anthem, but no one knew why, and they were like nobody asked him. So I dropped a precursor on Twitter like, ‘Oh, this reporter asked him, and soon you’ll find out the real deal.’ So then everyone’s antennas were up, like, ‘Oh, my God, I didn’t get to him, I didn’t get to him. Steve Wyche did, Steve Wyche did.’ And then when it came out, it was as intense as I expected it.
“This wasn’t an ego thing for me. ‘Oh, I got the big scoop, or people are going to be talking about me doing the story.’ At this point in my career, that’s hardly what it’s about. My most satisfying thing was doing what the NFL Network pays me to do, and that’s to do my job well.”
Wyche was the only black journalist covering the game. Some have alleged that Wyche was able to break the news because he was black, and therefore Kaepernick must have given him the scoop. Wyche bristles at that accusation because it disregards the kind of reporter he is.
“I was just doing my job,” Wyche said. “There are some fantastic reporters on that Niners beat. They just didn’t see it happened; it happens all the time. He followed up, and he said many of the same things that he told me. He was very honest to everyone who wanted to hear. Again, that’s why I’m saying I think he would’ve said the same things to anyone who asked him.”
If Wyche had any advantage at all, it was his long-standing professional relationship with Kaepernick, going back to when he first met him as a QB prospect out of the University of Nevada. Wyche, Kaepernick and his agent talked during the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, and that continued when the quarterback was a backup behind 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. Wyche would go into the locker room and just chat with the young signal-caller.
“Just because I took the time to have a conversation with them, I think he did feel a different level of comfort as to where we had discussions instead of him just coming at me to interview me. So he may have felt, and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I do think he may have felt a little more comfortable, and I do think my resume may have helped because in the aftermath of all of this, just a couple days later, he said, ‘I am kind of glad that you wrote that because you were able to put some historical context to it.'”
The evolution of Kaepernick’s protest
Kaepernick would eventually overtake Gabbert as the starting quarterback for San Francisco and finish the season with 2,241 yards, 16 touchdowns, four interceptions and a 90.7 percent QB rating in 12 games.
Kaepernick opted out of his six-year, $114 million contract on March 3, and 33 free agent quarterbacks have been signed since then. Kaepernick remains without a job.
“When I said Colin expected some of the backlash, I don’t know if he necessarily expected that to not be working,” Wyche said. “I don’t think he’s necessarily surprised that he’s not getting an opportunity. I’m sure it’s frustrating for him to see other players get opportunities before him, but again I think he knew he was in a contract year. I think he knew by stepping out like this it was going to create a significant backlash and it would put a lot of people on the spot. And he said, ‘Look, I’m not going to ask other people to step out and do anything for me,’ but a lot of people did. It’s just real interesting that at this point, a year away, seeing a lot of people understanding what protesting the flag or national anthem, how that’s kind of a trip wire to get people’s attention.”
In 2016, WNBA teams; the Denver Broncos’ Brandon Marshall; members of the Miami Dolphins, U.S. women’s national team soccer star Megan Rapinoe; and collegiate, high school and youth players took a knee or didn’t stand for the playing of the national anthem.
Some speculated that because NFL teams were trying to bury Kaepernick, other players would fall in line and not participate this season. What some in the league did not realize is that Kaepernick’s movement was a seed and would only grow bigger. By the time three people lost their lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, because of a white supremacy and neo-Nazi protest, players in the league went over their boiling point.
“You’re still going to see minorities get treated in certain ways or maybe not get the justice they feel,” Wyche said. “It’s been going on forever. The fact that people now are saying Charlottesville is the catalyst, where have you been? It’s happened forever. We now just have camera phones to catch it. Do you believe that Emmett Till really happened? These things, they’ve happened.
“So the heightened social awareness of some people, that I think Kaepernick said it’s OK to do, but it comes with a risk. I think, to me, that’s what has caught my attention the most through all of this.
“These guys have seen their peers, people their age — Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, people that are basically agewise their peers — get shot by police, or get shot by George Zimmerman, and there’s no judicial prosecution, and it resonates.”
On Monday night, Cleveland Browns tight end Seth DeValve became the first white NFL player to take a knee during the national anthem. He joined more than 10 Browns players who either knelt or stood with their hand on a kneeling player. All of this after Browns head coach Hue Jackson said he respected his players’ First Amendment rights but didn’t believe that’s where his players heads were.
The Browns players joined protests from the Oakland Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch, the Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett and Justin Britt, and the Philadelphia Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long.
There was a rally in support of Kaepernick on Wednesday afternoon outside of the NFL’s headquarters in New York City. Both the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. and the NAACP have sent letters to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell imploring him to help resolve the hurdles keeping Kaepernick out of the league.
So where does the national anthem protest go from here? Wyche has no idea, but he finds it spectacular that regardless whether or not people agree with Kaepernick, there is this growing social awareness. Did Kaepernick ultimately hit the mark on what he set out to achieve?
“What he set out to accomplish was to bring attention to social injustice,” Wyche said. “Absolutely. 100 percent … in terms of bringing attention to certain causes. Has it elicited change? That’s up for debate. Good, bad or indifferent, but it’s brought attention to it.”