He could have turned his back.
When the national anthem played, he could have raised a clenched fist.
Could have remained seated on the bench. Or continued stretching. Or kept talking to a teammate.
But he didn't.
Colin Kaepernick could have chosen a dozen other ways of protesting.
But he chose to kneel.
It changes everything.
To kneel is often an act of submission. Knights kneel before lords. For centuries, women have knelt during childbirth. I knelt when I proposed to my wife. At my grandfather's funeral — he was a World War II vet — the Marine knelt down before our family, handing the folded flag to my grandmother. Believers kneel during prayer.
Kneeling is humbling, yet also empowering. Not to the ego, but to the soul. Kneeling suggests a willingness to be vulnerable, and an understanding that life is not only about strength and physical power. The knee bends on a hinge, and, well, life does too: the ups and downs, highs and lows, good times and bad. Kneeling represents knowledge of this in a way that standing does not.
But there's more to it than that.
Since Kaepernick's original protest, some of the nation's biggest and most brutal bodies — NFL players — have begun bending a lowly knee. It is strangely beautiful, ironic, intriguing.
It's also culturally heretical and outlandish. In today's Hollywood, bodies don't kneel. They murder. They get stoned, then pass out. They cheat or lie. But kneel? When was the last time you saw somebody on screen — Hollywood, Netflix, prime-time TV — bend low and kneel?
This kneeling protest has the feel of a culture jam. Kaepernick used the nation's biggest stage — with its routine sexism, violence and gluttony — to reintroduce the ancient practice of kneeling. What's next? Linebackers turning the other cheek? NFL owners bowing?
And don't forget: this is not the first NFL player to kneel.
For years, much of America adored Tim Tebow, who knelt as a gesture of faith.
So why not love — or at least respect — Kaepernick, too?
"To God be the glory," proclaims one of Kaepernick's tattoos. Yes, he's a Christian, too. (See the Rev. Angela Denker's outstanding piece in The Washington Post on Kaepernick and religion.)
"Son of a b——," the president called these NFL players. Does that mean he'd call Dr. King — who knelt on one side of that Selma, Ala., bridge — a son of a b——, too? Or the brave students from Howard High who led the 1960 sit-in protest — similar to kneeling — here?
He just might. President Trump seems consistently interested in tearing down — David Brooks of The New York Times called him the Abbie Hoffman of the Right — instead of building up. His S.O.B. comment means he's criticized NFL players more rawly than the Charlottesville neo-Nazis.
Kaepernick's kneel is a justified protest against racism and police brutality, but even if you don't agree with that, perhaps you'd see the wisdom in kneeling. The transformative power. The medicine it has to offer our broken culture at this critical point.
In the face of aggression, do not stand for even more aggression. Kneel in nonviolent love.
In the face of chaos and confusion, kneel in simplicity and grace.
In the face of different perspectives and opinions, do not stand in rigid and unyielding arrogance. Kneel in disarming humility.
In the face of selfish individualism, kneel to honor those — cops, social workers, soldiers, nurses — who put others first.
In the face of injustice and violence, do not stand in conformity and agreement.
It is good for the soul of America. Almost like an anthem.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.