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49ers open NFL’s first social justice exhibition at Levi’s Stadium

On Dec. 22, the San Francisco 49ers unveiled a new museum exhibition at Levi’s Stadium called “The Long Game: Sports & Social Justice In The Bay Area.” | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard

Six years after their then-starting quarterback—Colin Kaepernick—captured the nation’s attention (and vitriol) with his national anthem protest, the San Francisco 49ers unveiled a new museum exhibition at Levi’s Stadium called “The Long Game: Sports & Social Justice In The Bay Area.” 

The exhibition spotlights five historical moments in the Bay Area where sports intersected with national movements for change. It is the first of its kind in the NFL, which has had a mixed record of supporting player protests.

“I hope that people leave understanding that change is possible in this country but not inevitable,” said Dr. Damion Thomas of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, who helped curate the exhibition. “It takes people brave enough to stand up and stand out, which has historically always come with consequences.” 

The new exhibition starts by telling the story of Willie Mays’ move to San Francisco after the Giants moved there from New York in 1957. When he and his wife, Margherite, went looking for a house, they found a deeply segregated city that was redlined in order to keep people of color out of white neighborhoods.  

The 49ers' new "Long Game" exhibition starts off by telling the story of Willie Mays' move to San Francisco in 1957. | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard

Despite their fame and celebrity, the Mays were initially blocked from buying a home in the city’s St. Francis Wood neighborhood until Terry Francois, a prominent Black attorney—who went on to become the city’s first Black supervisor in 1964—lobbied on their behalf. 

“People tend to think of housing discrimination as a historically Southern issue,” Thomas said. “But the Mays’ story makes us pause and consider history that isn’t necessarily known anymore since everyone thinks of the Bay Area as a place that has generally led positive transformation.” 

Other stories that the exhibition delves into include: Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ famous “Black Power” salute at the 1968 Olympics and their activist work at San Jose State University; “The Diversifying of Executive Leaders on Sports Teams”; “Sexism and Equal Opportunity’ told through Brandi Chastain and female coaches who have broken gender barriers; and finally the story of Kaepernick. 

"The Long Game" features five Bay Area stories where sports and social justice collided. | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard

“The job of a curator is to make really hard choices, but telling [the Kaepernick] story was a must,” Thomas explained. “It is a contemporary issue that is still being debated. By drawing a connection between the past and present, people can reflect on how public opinion has shifted and why that is.”  

“Colin [Kaepernick] wasn’t against the anthem [when he knelt] no more than Tommie Smith and John Carlos were against the anthem in 1968,” said Dr. Harry Edwards, ethnic studies professor emeritus at UC Berkeley, who also advised on the exhibition. 

A museum video shows Colin Kaepernick (right) and Eric Reid (left) kneeling during the national anthem before a game. | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard

“The Long Game” will open to the public for the first time on Dec. 23, the day before the Niners host the Washington Commanders. It will be accessible to the general public on weekends during the football season with tickets available for purchase at the museum. Visitors with valid game day tickets also get a discounted rate.

Thomas hopes that exhibitions like these will start to become the norm around the league where millions of fans congregate weekly. 

“We’re still at the forefront of these types of conversations,” Thomas said. “Historically, sports museums have only been about sharing the good times and trophies. Now, we’re being asked to do more.” 

"The Long Game" exhibition is located inside the 49ers museum at Levi's Stadium, which until Dec. 22 was mostly a celebration of the team's accomplishments on the field. | Kevin V. Nguyen/The Standard

Kevin V. Nguyen can be reached at