Kaepernick is face of a movement, history in the making

Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has not found a spot on an NFL roster, as his decision to kneel for the national anthem has sparked widespread controversy. Courtesy of Adam Fagen via Flickr

Knee bent and unwavering, staring deep into the face of centuries of unchanging oppression, serenaded by the same “Star Spangled Banner” built on the backs of chains and shackles, Colin Kaepernick has become a controversial figure. Drawing attention from both sides of the political spectrum, Kaep has become synonymous with the interaction of race and sports. Needless to say, he is divisive. His controversy, for better or worse, has left him blackballed from the NFL, and a contemporary figure reminiscent of the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

Yet, assessing his historical impact is difficult within the current moment. It’s a question of writing history as one experiences it, which often results in skewed objectivity. In my personal opinion, however, objectivity is not a useful tool when choosing sides of history. As time passes and the reality of old white owners reaping the benefits of a league dominated by primarily Black players persists, it becomes clearer that Kaepernick was right to kneel. Regardless of your opinion on his choice, his impact is undeniable.

A million-dollar pledge to organizations committed to fighting oppression, a Nike advertising campaign focused on growing the movement and a collusion case settled with NFL owners. It has become clear that Kaepernick is a player off the field, even if he remains absent on it.

Herein lies the problem.

Colin Kaepernick was a football player long before he ever became a leading face in a growing civil rights movement, so let’s be clear: The man formerly known as Kaep was borderline dominant when he played. Heading a San Francisco team that went to the Super Bowl and owning a QB rating that was typically amongst the best in the league, Kaepernick was positioned for stardom. He was lightning in a bottle, but that bottle cracked.

Kaepernick, following a season where he posted his highest QB Rating in four years, opted out of his contract after failed extension negotiations with the 49ers. Later, General Manager John Lynch made it clear that Kaepernick would’ve been cut even if he had opted into his contract. Coincidentally, this transaction quickly followed the beginning of Kaep’s (now infamous) protests on the state of the country.

From my vantage point, there’s only one real explanation for a young quarterback on the cusp of his prime finding himself left without any team interest.

He was blackballed.

This idea of Kaepernick’s blackballing— essentially rejecting him for his desire and willingness to speak on inherently Black issues—is neither foreign nor kept under wraps amongst NFL owners. Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder made the audacious claim that “96 percent” of all Americans opposed kneeling (The Washington Post, “An ESPN report calls Daniel Snyder a ‘pro-stand owner.’ The Redskins declined to comment.” 10.27.2017). Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, in response to questions surrounding the continued protest amongst NFL players, said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison” (Bleacher Report, “Texans Owner Bob McNair on Protests: ‘We Can’t Have Inmates Running the Prison’,” 10.27.2017).

As pivotal as Kaepernick’s protests have been, it’s important to understand that the movement goes deeper than simply him. The NFL demonstrates a symptom of a disease that is inherent to American sports, and almost all sports leagues in general. The divide between predominantly white owners and Black players feels like an outdated idea transposed into our reality. To avoid sugar-coating our present, it is unacceptable that in our contemporary age Black players can continue to be sold as products from the hands of old white men who have no relation to the sport itself. As fellow civil rights sportsman and spokesman LeBron James blatantly put it, “They got that slave mentality,” (The Guardian, “LeBron James says NFL team owners have ‘slave mentality’,”12.22.2018). The truth persists.

Kaepernick is incredible because he shed light on this moment. He turned forth the rock that ultimately forced us as consumers of sport to acknowledge the relationship that we continue to fund.

Boycotting the NFL may not be a realistic choice, but neither was kneeling in the face of old, white, millionaires. Kaep set a precedent for the equity that we must demand. He acknowledged that he was not comfortable simply being a cog in the greater system. He presented the reality that Black athletes are not comfortable continuing on with the white objectification that has shackled their people for millennia.

Kaep’s capacity to play has nothing to do with this success.

Colin Kaepernick has not failed. Colin Kaepernick has not failed because he has not made a roster. Colin Kaepernick has not failed because he lost out on $14 million in contract money. In reality, Colin Kaepernick has shifted history. He has shed a light on a dark patch of American culture, and has asked us to critically confront what this dark patch means. Some, like Snyder and McNair, are not yet willing to accept their responsibility in creating this patch, but I am hopeful that will come with time.

Until then, my Sundays won’t be tuning in for this modern slavery.

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