USA TODAY - Colin Kaepernick hasn’t played a down of football this season, which may have bolstered his selection as this year’s Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award recipient.
Kaepernick is expected to attend SI’s Sportsperson of the Year Awards show on Tuesday in New York, where he will be honored. The Legacy Award typically goes to sports figures who have used their platform to initiate change over a span of decades.
Kaepernick, 30, is the youngest winner, and his efforts -- from kneeling during the national anthem to working with and funding social justice groups -- only date to September 2016. However, those involved in the selection process said Kaepernick met the spirit of what the award represents.
“The Muhammad Ali Legacy Award is given to those who make the world a better place,” Steve Cannella, Sports Illustrated executive editor, told USA TODAY Sports. “The fact Colin hasn’t played this year or been on the field doesn’t disqualify him. That fact that he hasn’t played in a game actually shows what he has sacrificed for standing up for what he believes. There will never be another Muhammad Ali, but you can see the echoes of (Ali) in what Colin has done over the last 12 to 15 months.”
Kaepernick started protesting during the national anthem in the 2016 preseason to draw attention to police brutality and social justice issues. The protests were soon adopted by several players and have continued this season. The protesting players and the NFL have been criticized by President Donald Trump and others who view the peaceful demonstrations as an affront to the flag and the military.
Kaepernick has kept a low profile since he opted out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers in March. As dozens of other quarterbacks were signed via free agency, Kaepernick has remained jobless. He filed a grievance against the NFL in October, alleging that owners have colluded to keep him out of the league.
Lonnie Ali, Ali's wife of more than 30 years before the legendary boxer died in June 2016, played a role in deciding the winner.
“I am proud to be able to present this year’s SI Muhammad Ali Legacy Award to Colin Kaepernick for his passionate defense of social justice and civil rights for all people,” Lonnie Ali said in a statement.
“Like Muhammad, Colin is a man who stands on his convictions with confidence and courage, undaunted by the personal sacrifices he has had to make to have his message heard. He has used his celebrity and philanthropy to benefit some of our most vulnerable community members."
Cannella, who also produces the awards show that will be broadcast for the first time nationally on NBC Sports Network (8 p.m. ET, Dec. 8), understands there could be some controversy in selecting Kaepernick.
“We expect reaction with everything we do,” Cannella said. "That’s just the modern political landscape we are in. I don’t know if there will be a backlash, but we do expect a reaction. Do I expect some to disagree with the decision? Sure.”
Kaepernick has continued his work with social justice groups this year, and in that time period has also donated $1 million to several charities.
“He has done a lot of work behind the scenes and under the radar with his charitable efforts,” Cannella said. “There’s no denying he’s been quiet, but we want this award to honor him because a lot of the noise has overshadowed his core message.”
Sports Illustrated’s Legacy Award began in 2008, and Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver was the first recipient. The honor was not intended to become an annual award, but it has been each year since 2014, when Magic Johnson was honored.
Sports Illustrated renamed the award after Ali in 2015, and legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus won that year. Last year, the award was shared by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown and Bill Russell.
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