Get students to connect Colin Kaepernick to Jesse Owens and consider the political history of sports.

Members of the San Francisco 49ers both standing and kneeling for the national anthem.

During the 2016 National Football League (NFL) season, Colin Kaepernick -- who at the time was a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers -- kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality and the systemic oppression of people of color. Kaepernick's protest -- also known as the #TakeAKnee or national anthem protests -- sparked a national debate on the relationship between sports and politics and the appropriateness of protest within sporting events. The following video and discussion activities will help students think critically about this debate, drawing on the long history of Black athletes as activists for context.

Recommended for:

Grades: 10 to 12
Subject: history, ELA, social studies

Prep for teachers

In the classroom

Hook (five minutes):

  • Before screening the video, ask students to take notes while they watch. Provide your students with an essential question to focus their viewing, e.g., "How was Jesse Owens used as a political symbol for the United States?"
  • Show this Retro Report video: What Jesse Owens's Story Tells Us About Sports and Politics.

Pressing play on the YouTube video below will set third-party cookies controlled by Google if you are logged in to Chrome. See Google's cookie information for details.

Discussion (15 minutes):

Use the questions below (or your own) to lead a discussion about the video.

  • What did Jesse Owens symbolize at the 1936 Olympic Games? How did the United States use this symbolism?
  • In the video (at the 1:50 min. mark), Dr. Harry Edwards says that Black athletes at the 1936 Olympic Games were "useful in Berlin as long as they didn't bring it home." What is the "it" he's referring to? What would they be bringing home, and why was that dangerous?
  • In what ways do you see sports and politics connected today?
    • Some possible examples: playing the national anthem before sporting events, jet flyovers at football games, professional and college teams visiting the White House after winning championships, military personnel performing ceremonies, the president or other government officials throwing out first pitches or participating in coin tosses, commercials, etc.
  • What role does the news and sports media play in how we understand the role or appropriateness of politics in sports? (Note: You may want to refer back to the video and discuss how Owens' victories were covered in the press.)
  • Are there any current athletes who are particularly politically active? What issues do they address? Some possible examples: LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Paul (all NBA stars who have spoken out against police violence), Megan Rapinoe (U.S. women's soccer team star who spoke out against Trump), Ed Reed (Hall of Fame former NFL player who has protested police violence and mass shootings).  
    • What similarities or differences do you see between Jesse Owens and these modern athletes?

Student handout (complete in class or as homework):

  • Distribute or send to students this handout on competing views on the relationship between sports and politics.
  • Give students time to complete the handout.
  • Invite students to share their work with the class, or review the responses and share the most thoughtful ones.
Changing the game student worksheet.


Possible follow-ups

Top photo credit: KA Sports Photos and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Editor's note: This resource is part of a monthly series that helps teachers facilitate classroom discussions about trending and timely issues in the news and media. For more, browse our library of news and media literacy articles.

Patrick J.

Patrick Johnson is an educator and researcher with a particular focus on the intersection of race, popular culture, and media. He has his Ph.D. in Social and Cultural Studies from the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley.