Obama says 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick is ‘exercising his constitutional right’

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, sits during the national anthem before an NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, sits during the national anthem before a September 1 preseason game against the Chargers in San Diego. —Chris Carlson / AP

President Barack Obama said Monday that Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, is “exercising his constitutional right” by refusing to stand during the national anthem, a decision that has created considerable controversy since he first took the action 10 days ago.

While noting the meaning of the flag and the national anthem, the president said there was a long history of sports figures making political statements.

“I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about,” Obama said during a news conference in China. “And if nothing else, what he’s done is he’s generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.”

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It was the first time that the president had weighed in on Kaepernick’s actions, which many have criticized as being as disrespectful to the United States.

Kaepernick, who is biracial and was adopted by white parents, first created an uproar Aug. 26 when he remained seated before the 49ers’ exhibition game with the Green Bay Packers. He said afterward that he would not “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

On Thursday, before the team’s final exhibition game, in San Diego, Kaepernick chose to kneel during the anthem. He later said he intended to continue his protest into the regular NFL season, which is scheduled to begin Thursday. The 49ers play their first regular-season game Sept. 12.

“Once again, I’m not anti-American,” Kaepernick said Thursday. “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.”

Not long ago, Kaepernick was one of the game’s top players, leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl in the 2012 season and to the NFC championship game the following year. But he was benched halfway through last season and will start the 2016 campaign as the backup to Blaine Gabbert.

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Kaepernick was frequently booed during the team’s final exhibition game, and the police union in Santa Clara, California, has threatened to stop working 49ers home games this season because of Kaepernick’s actions. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, is among those who have denounced him.

Nevertheless, his stance has also led to numerous expressions of support, with backers arguing that his protest is a worthy statement on the troubled status of U.S. race relations. And even as a backup quarterback, his jersey is now the fifth-best seller at the NFL’s official online store.

Megan Rapinoe, one of America’s most prominent female soccer players, knelt during a National Women’s Soccer League match Sunday in support of Kaepernick. She told espnW that she was disgusted by how Kaepernick has been treated and would continue to kneel throughout the season.

“Quite honestly, being gay, I have stood with my hand over my heart during the national anthem and felt like I haven’t had my liberties protected, so I can absolutely sympathize with that feeling,” she said.

Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, told ABC News that Kaepernick’s rationale “didn’t really make that much sense to me” but supported his right to protest.

“You’ve got to respect people’s ability to act according to their conscience, so I wouldn’t presume to tell him what to do,” he said.

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