SANTA CLARA (AP) — When Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest initially went public, talk immediately turned to whether it would lead to a distraction that would divide the San Francisco 49ers’ locker room.
Two weeks later, as the Niners prepare for their opener Monday night against the Los Angeles Rams, the opposite has been the case, in fact, as the team has only gotten closer as players have had in-depth talks that have helped them learn more about one another.
“It leads to deeper conversations that need to be talked about, not just in our locker room, not just in barber shops around the country but everywhere,” receiver Torrey Smith said. “There are really issues. People get caught up in what Kap did by sitting down and not by the message that he’s trying to send. I think that’s the most important thing, to get people talking, and it’s worked.”
Kaepernick’s protest became public after he sat during the anthem before a home game against Green Bay on Aug. 26. He later explained his reasoning, saying he was protesting the oppression of minorities and police brutality in the United States.
That created a media maelstrom that the team had to handle. The Niners immediately put out a statement supporting Kaepernick’s right to protest, and the players held a private meeting to allow Kaepernick to explain his reasoning and his teammates to ask questions.
“That’s really been the last that as a team that we talked about the situation,” coach Chip Kelly said. “We recognize and respect Kap’s decision and his constitutional rights to do what he’s doing and it sounds like it’s been a positive change. There’s been a lot of positive things that have come out of it. So, we haven’t had any meetings since.”
Safety Eric Reid joined Kaepernick in the protest in the final exhibition game in San Diego — with the two kneeling instead of sitting, in a move meant to show more respect to veterans.
Even the front office joined in despite a sometimes rocky relationship with Kaepernick that almost led to an offseason trade. Owner Jed York pledged $1 million to the cause of improving racial and economic inequality and starting collaboration between Bay Area law enforcement and the community.
“I think there’s been a lot of open conversations, a lot more conversations going on in general,” Kaepernick said. “I think ultimately this team and this locker room have gotten a lot closer because of the gaining and understanding of individuals.”
Kaepernick and Reid plan to continue their protest before the opener and Smith said more teammates might join in. While Seattle’s Jeremy Lane also has joined the protest and others could as well, don’t expect any Rams to do it.
Coach Jeff Fisher made his stance clear at a team meeting at the start of training camp. In a message replayed on the HBO show “Hard Knocks,” Fisher spelled out how his players should approach the anthem: defensive players on the sideline to the left, offensive players to the right, helmets held under the left arm.
Fisher said he does not “demand” that his players follow his rules but stressed how important it is to him.
“I do have, however, a respect for the anthem and a respect for this country and respect for our flag,” he said. “I have every right as a head coach and we have the right as an organization to express our feelings from that standpoint.”
The Rams have had other potential distractions to deal with this offseason as they have dealt with moving the franchise from St. Louis to Los Angeles. The team held offseason workouts in Oxnard, before holding training camp in Irvine and then setting up shop before the regular season in Thousand Oaks, all while moving the entire franchise halfway across the country.
They will play their games at the L.A. Coliseum starting with the home opener next week against Seattle.
“There are just inconveniences, not problems — little things,” quarterback Case Keenum said. “The team and organization have done a great job keeping us as comfortable as we can. Just trying to get in the regular routine and play in a regular season game.”