The Colin Kaepernick saga — and saga is putting it nicely — has disintegrated to a point at which the NFL’s underbelly of ugliness can no longer be camouflaged. The past week alone has produced a new round of rationales for Kaepernick’s unemployment so reeking of desperation they have actually helped bring the truth into focus: Kaepernick is being blackballed because it turns out that in the NFL’s cesspool of criminals, individualized politicization not aligned with league culture is the worst crime of them all.
Yahoo!’s Dan Wetzel, a typically brilliant columnist, suggested Kaapernick isn’t dedicated to being a football player in part because he doesn’t have enough football content on his personal website, Kaepernick7.com. The piece’s headline, “Kaepernick is making his choice: Activism over the NFL,” is particularly disheartening because it rightfully assumes that in the NFL, a player must choose.
The MMQB’s Albert Breer echoed the notion Kap lacks allegiance to the NFL, at least according to an anonymous 49ers source. Breer suggested Kaepernick should publicly state his desire to play in order to prove his devotion to the NFL gods. All of Kap’s activism — from the $700,000 he’s raised for a bevy of charities as part of his Million Dollar Pledge, to the “Know Your Rights” camps he started to help underprivileged urban kids understand their local resources, to the millions he’s inspired — actually makes him a liability in the NFL zeitgeist.
There is a faction of the NFL waiting for Kaepernick to hold a press conference and write, “The NFL is my soul mate” 1000 times on a chalkboard. Of course in that alternate universe called reality, the free agent quarterback is working out 5-6 days a week and directly reiterated his desire to play to The Nation’s Dave Zirin last month.
Even if naysayers opened their eyes (and hearts) and understood Kap’s professional goals, more mud would be slung. There would be more disinformation than “the heart is not in football” excuse or saying Kap’s not a good enough quarterback. (Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said he should be starting.) Or that he’s asking for too much money. (No one knows what he’s asking for.) Or that he’d disrupt a locker room (His Niners teammates voted him ‘Most Inspirational Player’ last year.) Or that he wouldn’t accept a backup role. (He said he would and visited Seattle that is pretty set with its first-team quarterback). Or that he’s not a ‘system’ quarterback. (Have fun with system quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick, Mark Sanchez and Blaine Gabbert.) Or that he’ll draw too much media attention. (Um, when did the NFL not love media attention?) But the desperate excuse bank only serves as a Band-Aid as “football people” serve as a shield for the league.
Underneath the pile of excuses, each one more hideous than before, lies the dark reality of the NFL’s black and white patriotism. Since 9/11, the NFL has draped itself in the American flag, creating nonstop optics to promote the military. Collecting over $700,000 from the Department of Defense, the league created military tributes. But beyond the sheer commercialism of sponsorships, the NFL profited by effectively marketing itself as part and parcel of our country’s most respected institution. A true symbiotic relationship.
Along the way, the league has not-so-subtly delivered the message that the national anthem and flag are solely vessels for pledging allegiance to our Armed Forces. So even though Kaepernick expressed his freedom of individual thought and kneeled not out of disrespect to the military but to protest the errant state of America’s policing, he committed the ultimate sin. In real life, the flag can mean so many different things to this country’s 321 million citizens from a staggering array of backgrounds, but in the NFL there is only one definition. Abusers of women, children and dogs, DUI collectors, and weapon brandishers all get to litter NFL rosters, but showcasing an ounce of variant politicization will get you ostracized.
The Merriam-Webster definition of “blackball” is: “to exclude from membership by casting a secret vote.” Owners may not be actively colluding to keep Kaepernick out of league in that it’s unlikely they all huddled on a private plane and took a formal vote. But Kaepernick has been blackballed by the league’s deep culture of conformity.
Among a mostly conservative pack of 32 owners there are a few outliers — for example, Arthur Blank is a known Democrat who has publicly teased Robert Kraft for befriending Donald Trump. But even the few progressive owners, general managers and coaches are ill-equipped to fend off the implicit biases stemming from the league’s incredibly clear definition of patriotism since 2001. Implicit biases are the powerful stereotypes — often gender and race based — that impact our decision-making in an unconscious manner.
According to the Kirwin Institute at Ohio State, these “implicit associations we hold do not necessarily align with our declared beliefs or even reflect stances we would explicitly endorse.” So even if a more open-minded individual like, say, Pete Carroll overtly supported Kaepernick’s protest, his unconscious would identify red flags for a candidate who defies expectations of what a football player “should be.” So when choosing between Kaepernick and Austin Davis, the implicit bias that football players should be apolitical patriots (an oxymoron itself) would present Kaepernick as the weaker candidate despite obvious evidence suggesting otherwise.
That Kaepernick is a quarterback only compounds his situation. Naysayers like to point out that most of those who joined Kaepernick in protesting — ex-teammate safety Eric Reid, linebacker Brandon Marshall and defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, to name a few — are still in the league. Well, they don’t play under center. One of the many archaic realities of the NFL is how it embraces team leaders who are conformists. The staler the better. Who is the last quarterback to say anything provocative of note? Even the league’s top quarterback refuses to admit he’s friends with the president for fear of making waves. Juxtapose this reality to the NBA, where star players and coaches repeatedly publicly discuss polarizing political issues without fear of ramifications, where the commissioner is comfortable dancing on a float during a Gay Pride parade.
Kaepernick has sparked a movement, simultaneously inspiring fellow millionaires and homeless children, professors and students, blacks, whites and yes, media members. As the NFL purports to be a body of altruism, there is no person more appropriate to rally around than Colin Kaepernick. Instead, because the league has the nerve to try and define the meaning of the American flag (itself a symbol!), he has been shunned.
In fact, I just got the following text from a highly respected NFL executive associated with the Jags, Browns, Bears and XFL: “Hey, did you hear that Colin Kaepernick doesn’t have football sheets on his bed, spent five hours in an art museum, and get this, doesn’t even have Hank Williams Jr. on his workout playlist. His playing days are over.”