Athletes, Activism and the First Amendment: A Conversation With Nate Boyer
When Nate Boyer sat down with Colin Kaepernick in a hotel lobby in 2016, just days before the 15-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, and suggested that the San Francisco 49ers quarterback kneel, rather than sit, during the national anthem, he couldn't have imagined the backlash that would follow.
Seven years later, the U.S. Army veteran and former NFL player says he "would not have done anything different," and that's due in large part to one thing: The First Amendment.
"That is what we take the oath to defend above all else. It is that Constitution," Boyer said during Freedom Forum's 1A Fest in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 9, 2023. "When I put that hand up and said the words to join the military, that's what I was defending. It wasn't the flag. It wasn't the anthem. It wasn't these symbols."
Despite finding himself at the forefront of one of the most significant and controversial protests in U.S. sports history, and despite the fact that he has said he disagrees with "a lot" of what Kaepernick has "said, done, and even worn," Boyer hasn't wavered in his support of the First Amendment and the rights it guarantees.
"I will die for the person that would burn an American flag right in front of me today," Boyer said. "I don't want that to happen. I don't want to see that. That doesn't make me happy. But that's the freedom that I fought for. And that's why (America) is like no other place. And we have the opportunity and the potential to be the greatest in the world. We might not be, but we should be. Because of that Constitution. Because of that First Amendment."
For decades leading up to the Kaepernick protests and in the years that have followed, countless athletes – from Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 to entire NBA teams in 2020 – have exercised their First Amendment freedoms. Whether by standing or kneeling, tweeting or speaking, athletes have long leveraged their platforms to fight for what they believe in. Boyer included.
"A lot of veterans struggle with a lot of things, but for me, it's feeling like I'll ever do anything as important as I did before: being a part of (the military)," Boyer said. "So if I have the opportunity to do that, and to continue to fight for those that can't fight for themselves – and I'm not saying Colin Kaepernick or all the people he's representing can't fight for themselves – but I want to be a part of helping those that maybe don't have that full opportunity, that full voice. And I want to help that message be heard by people that normally would never listen.
"Maybe there's a group of people that'll listen to a white guy that was in the military that maybe would never listen to Colin Kaepernick. And if they can understand that he was willing to talk to me, listen to me, have a conversation with me, adjust and make a change, and do something different through our conversation to honor me and the people that I've served with, that they should at least lend an ear and give him that opportunity to not only speak, but to really listen to this man and understand: His experience is very different than your experience. All of our experiences are different. And that's a great thing. That's what makes America great, truly. But we have to take that opportunity to listen, and to truly absorb, and to not judge, and to just know that we're very fortunate to have what we have here."
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Before joining the Army and becoming an active-duty Green Beret, and before he had ever played a snap of competitive football, Boyer, in 2004 at age 23, volunteered at refugee camps in the Darfur region of Sudan. Boyer's patriotism, he says, stemmed from that experience, "because of the people that were there that were just so grateful that an American would leave what we have here — because we do have a lot here — to go there and help," he said.
Now, Boyer is emphasizing the importance of Americans finding common ground. Agree or disagree, the First Amendment protects everyone's right to express themselves freely and join with others to make their views known. The diversity of voices and perspectives strengthens our nation, and it's something that Boyer and Kaepernick have both exercised time and time again, starting with their first conversation in that hotel lobby seven years ago.
"I was just impressed with him in that moment, of his willingness to take (my perspective) into consideration and to consider an entire population of 20 million or so veterans in the country, and that to be important to him" Boyer said. "Because he understood that those people, good, bad, indifferent, they take that oath to defend the First Amendment, to defend the Constitution, and that's what he was exercising (with his protests). And I thought that was pretty incredible."