Jeremy Schaap — an ESPN writer and the author of "Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics" — and Dave Zirin — the sports editor for The Nation and the author of "What's My Name, Fool!" a book about sports and political resistance in America — told ABC News that several factors will determine the legacy of Kaepernick's recent actions.
"We've had a chance to step away with the benefit of hindsight after a cooling down period, and now people judge their actions in a completely different way," Schaap said.
"He's elevated the discussion with the actions he's taken," Zirin said. "That's why this story has been so electric. It feels very similar to 1968."
Ali, of course, drew considerable criticism at the time of his protest but was lionized as an American hero by everyone from President Obama to Donald Trump when he died this year. Smith and Carlos, who were ostracized and received death threats in 1968, later went on to win an Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2008 ESPYs. Nowadays, imagery of their protest has become ubiquitous and has even been featured in corporate advertising.
Zirin differentiated the actions of Abdul-Rauf and Delgado from those of Ali, Smith and Carlos by describing them as "isolated" and not really part of any specific movement.
He said that the isolation of Abdul-Rauf, for example, made him more vulnerable to punishment than Kaepernick. "He was fined, and I don't think that would happen now," Zirin said.
Schaap said that Delgado's actions aren't really remembered because he never received much in the way of punishment for his protest, which was conducted in response for America's invasion of Iraq and made in solidarity with a political movement happening in his native home of Puerto Rico over U.S. weapons testing on the island of Vieques.
"He didn't lose millions of dollars and wasn't banished from his sport," Schaap said. "To create a lasting impression [like the protests of Ali, Smith and Carlos], there has to be a sense that these guys are sacrificing something."
Zirin also noted that Abdul-Rauf and Delgado conducted their protests in an age before social media and that that the public interpretations of their actions were left almost exclusively to sports writers. Nowadays, however, the public at large has a louder voice, thanks to social media. He called this change a "bottom up" interpretation of events rather than "top down," opening up a broader potential for support of Kaepernick's actions.
Zirin agreed with Schaap that the degree of sacrifice displayed by an athlete plays an important role in how a protest is viewed by the culture at large, suggesting that Kaepernick was indeed taking a big risk with his career.
"He's really risking something by doing this," Zirin said. "It's all the more admirable that he could be cut by the 49ers."
Since that time, however, his performance on the field has been mixed. Last year, he struggled through injury and inconsistency, having the worst year of his career as a pro.
Kaepernick can next be seen on Thursday night, when the San Francisco 49ers play a preseason game in San Diego against the Chargers, who are set to host their 28th Annual Salute to the Military celebration, recognizing the city’s robust military population with pregame and halftime events.
Kaepernick has said that he will not stand for the national anthem at that game.