Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit out the singing of the national anthem ahead of NFL games this season fits into a “long history” of athletes protesting political issues at sporting events, President Barack Obama said in his first comments on the Kaepernick controversy since it began.

Kaepernick refused to stand for the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” during the San Francisco 49ers game on Aug. 26, a decision which drew sharply divided reactions from the public.

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Obama, when asked about the protest during a press conference in China Monday morning, said that while Kaepernick’s protest may be controversial and “messy,” he is happy to see a young person engaged in the process of democracy, participating in an “active citizenry,” and continuing the tradition of athletes protesting issues, according to a transcript released by BuzzFeed.

“My understanding is that he is exercising his constitutional right to make a statement. I think there is a long history of sports figures doing so and I think there are a lot of ways you can do it,” Obama said.

Kaepernick’s protest had successfully “generated more conversation about some topics that need to be talked about,” Obama said, and that the quarterback had “a point around certain concerns around justice and equality.”

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The president also empathized with those who criticized Kaepernick, including military service members who may particularly dislike protests against the flag and anthem.

Eventually, Obama  said, Kaepernick may “refine” his ideas about protesting while his critics may “start seeing that he has a point around certain concerns around justice and equality and that is how we move forward.”

Obama's reference to other athletes protesting includes storied champions who have used sporting events to criticize the country or its policies.

In 1968, two black Olympic athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their fists in the air in a black power salute on the medal podium in Mexico City after their track and field events as a sign of protest.

In 1972, baseball star Jackie Robinson wrote in his autobiography, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world.”

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More recently, NBA player Dion Waiters declined to appear on the basketball court during the anthem in 2014. And in 1996, NBA player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf sat during the anthem and said the flag was “a symbol of oppression.”

Kaepernick's protest has inspired at least one of his contemporaries to protest as well. US. Women's soccer star Megan Rapinoe took one knee during the national anthem at a National Women’s Soccer League game on Sunday, telling reporters after that she did it as “a little nod to Kaepernick.”

Kaepernick said following his initial protest that while he had not informed his team or the league of his plans ahead of time, he had decided he could not “stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color."

"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,” he said.  

Kaepernick changed his protest from sitting down to kneeling during the anthem after he spoke with military veteran and long snapper Nate Boyer ahead of the 49ers’ most recent game, he told reporters. He said he wanted to keep the focus on the issues he wanted addressed while remaining respectful to the men and women who fight for the US.


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Obama: Colin Kaepernick Joins ‘Long History’ Athletic Protests

By Colleen Curry