By Ken Belson
June 16, 2017
Maybe Colin Kaepernick is in the wrong league.
Last season, Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, set off a national debate when he knelt during the national anthem
before games, as a way to shine a light on police violence and racial injustice. Now a free agent, he has been unable to find a job, leading to speculation that teams are steering clear of him because of his controversial stance.
If Kaepernick were a basketball player, things might be different. In the N.B.A.
, the biggest stars routinely share their opinions on a range of thorny social issues. Top coaches, including Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors and Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, have been critical of President Trump. The league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, was widely lauded for permanently barring Donald Sterling
, the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who was caught on tape using racist language.
But Kaepernick is trying to land a job in the N.F.L.
, a league filled with players who talk proudly about toeing the line and keeping their heads down. Coaches and team owners have an almost allergic reaction to addressing political issues. The commissioner, Roger Goodell, speaks often about patriotism. Few leagues spend as much time wrapping themselves in the flag.
Never mind that N.F.L. teams have offered million-dollar contracts to players convicted of animal abuse, domestic violence and other transgressions. Kaepernick, it would appear, crossed an immutable line, and he is now paying a price as teams hire journeyman backups and younger, untested quarterbacks over someone who just a few years ago led his team to the Super Bowl
Leading media members are carrying on a disinformation campaign against the greatest political lightning rod in sports.
By Dave Zirin
June 8, 2017
caption - San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick after a victory against the Rams in Los Angeles, California, on December 24, 2016.
photo credit: Robert Hanashiro, USA Today via Reuters // The Nation
We have heard a farcical parade of excuses by NFL owners and executives for why free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick remains unemployed. “He’s not 100 percent committed.” “He’s more concerned with activism.” “He’s a distraction.” “He will only sign with a team if he starts.” “He wants too much money.” Even, “I am concerned about his conditioning now that he is a vegetarian” (Real NFL players, if you haven’t heard, floss their teeth with steak gristle and drink testosterone shakes drained fresh from a bull’s balls.)
Their foot-massagers in the media—especially much of the team at Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback page at Sports Illustrated — have dutifully repeated these assertions with metronomic regularity.
Yet as each of these claims has been debunked by journalists actually communicating with Kaepernick and his people, they all continue to be reiterated. In other words, what is happening is a cycle of disinformation, carried out by media members who might as well wear the NFL brand tattooed on the small of their backs.
I have spoken with Kaepernick, and I can say that he wants to play. He is training six days a week, and he is not holding out for money. He simply wants a camp invite. As lesser back-up quarterbacks continue to be signed, his pariah status has become a spectacle without precedent. This was captured perfectly in a bit of research from Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman
, who tweeted, “144 quarterbacks have thrown 200 or more passes in the year when they turned 29. 143 were on NFL rosters when they turned 30. Kaepernick is the only one not.”
I have interviewed several football folk who have “studied the tape,” and they say otherwise. Bleacher Report’s lead scout Doug Farrar said to me, “As someone who has analyzed him back to his time at Nevada, I can tell you that Colin Kaepernick still belongs in the NFL—at the very least as a high-level backup, but more realistically as a starter, most likely in the mid-to-low 20s based on scheme fit. No, Kaepernick doesn’t always play from the pocket with ideal efficiency, but the story about him as a disaster in the pocket is a canard.… I’ll say this with certainty—Colin Kaepernick can still start in the NFL, and the fact that he isn’t on a team for football reasons alone strains credulity.”
As the rationalizations for his pariah-status pileup, the latest is perhaps the most gobsmacking. Seahawk coach Pete Carroll, if you can get your head around this, met with Kaepernick and said that he was simply too good for them to sign. Carroll said
, “He’s a starter in this league. We have a starter, but he’s a starter in this league.”
The logic of this statement, in a league where quarterbacks go down for several games or longer with regularity, is imbecilic. Equally risible is who the Seahawks signed to be their new backup: someone named Austin Davis who has 13 career touchdown passes and 12 interceptions and didn’t play last season. (In contrast, Kaepernick has 72 TDs passes and 30 picks and took a team to the Super Bowl.) Let’s not pick on Davis. Former New York Jet Ryan Fitzpatrick was signed as a backup by Tampa Bay. In one game last season, Fitzpatrick had more interceptions—six—than Kaepernick had all season: four. The list of awful quarterbacks with jobs is long, and each one a slap in the face to Kaepernick’s impressive career, his sterling locker-room reputation and the idea that the league is any kind of a meritocracy.
The truth is ugly as sin. The NFL is denying Colin Kaepernick employment not because he isn’t “good enough” but because he is being shut out for the crime of using his platform to protest the killing of black kids by police. This makes the league’s right-wing billionaire owners’ silk boxers bunch up.
Kaepernick’s pariah status is about sending a shot across the bow at every political athlete—particularly black athletes—that they better toe the line. The owners are again sending the message—just like when they tried to “influence” research
on the effects of brain injuries in the sport—that the lives of players simply do not matter to the National Football League.
The big mystery is whether what is happening is an old-school “blackballing” or if this is a conscious and coordinated campaign. Former NFL player Eric Davis implied strongly
that he thought that the NFL had contacted the Seahawks and told them not to sign Kaepernick. If this turns out to be true, we are no longer in the realm of blackballing. We are talking about collusion. That could mean lawsuits. Not just ordinary lawsuits, but nine-figure lawsuits. Major League Baseball had to pay out $280 million in 1990, when it was found guilty of collusion
, and anytime you’re dealing with the closed market of professional sports leagues, with their myriad antitrust provisions, collusion penalties can cost a fortune.
But I don’t think that Colin Kaepernick is going to go the litigation route. At least not now. He loves this sport and he wants to play. Only two questions remain: Will he get signed by a team when a quarterback inevitably goes down to injury, and will his name, until he’s on a roster, become synonymous with the silencing of the political athlete?
If an NFL player wants to speak out after the police murder of an unarmed child like Tamir Rice or after another racist killing, will teammates and agents tell him to be quiet for fear that he will be “Kaepernicked”? I don’t know the answer to the first question, but I feel very confident about the second one. Colin Kaepernick will be remembered as an inspiration. The reporters who have thrown dirt on him will be remembered only as the 21st-century iteration of the kind of racism that outspoken black athletes have always had to face.
[Dave Zirin is the sports editor of The Nation.]