The N.F.L. has tried to move on from the controversy over Colin Kaepernick, but recent events suggest his critique of America’s racial climate has remained relevant.
Kap was right.
Let’s not forget that.
Let’s not erase his legacy the way the powers running the N.F.L. would like.
As we barrel full steam toward the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, let’s not lose sight of the fact that Colin Kaepernick’s protest — his willingness to oppose the status quo and challenge America’s racial caste system — carried the profound weight of truth.
Fans should remember. Team owners and the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, should remember.
What about the players? Since many of them have dropped their guard and allowed the message to be watered down, they need to remember too.
The big game is less than two weeks away, with the Kansas City Chiefs seeking to successfully defend their title against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The narrative will center on quarterbacks, and rightly so. Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes aren’t just among the greatest to ever play, they are among the most captivating.
But years from now, when historians assess the connection between professional sports and the state of the world in the current era, which N.F.L. quarterback will loom largest?
I’ll bet on Kaepernick, once among the league’s most electric players, censured and shut out of the game since 2016. Kaepernick, whose kneeling protest during the national anthem tore at the heart of the one sport that most embodies America and its myths.
Kaepernick, loved and loathed, celebrated as a champion for justice and denounced by politicians looking to hype racial resentment, no matter the costs.
He has not just been at the center of the storm. At times he has been the storm. All of the other quarterbacks are throwing their beautiful spirals while watching safely from afar — careers well intact.
We’ve just endured a presidential term of brazen demagogy from a man many N.F.L. owners have considered a great leader and friend. We’ve seen the rise of white supremacy. The stream of police shootings. The killing of George Floyd. Protests, the coronavirus pandemic and the deadly storming of the Capitol.
Kaepernick’s critique of America foretold it all.
But if you think everything is fine now that there’s a new face in the White House, think again. Remember that he began his protest not under former President Donald J. Trump, but in the waning days of the Obama administration. He knelt not just against the cracking structure of modern day racism, but its faulty foundation, laid down centuries ago and built upon ever since.
His shadow still hangs over a league that heads to the Super Bowl acting as if he has never existed. N.F.L. owners — and their chief spokesman, Goodell — would rather slice him from collective memory and move on.
“There is nothing more humbling for the billionaires who own N.F.L. teams than to be proven wrong, especially by a Black athlete who is seen as a thorn in their side,” Derrick White, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Kentucky and an expert on race and football, said when we spoke last week.
That’s why the league settled the union grievance filed by the former 49ers quarterback and his former teammate Eric Reid. The pair claimed they were blackballed by the N.F.L. for protesting. A multimillion-dollar payout, replete with a confidentiality agreement, was easier to swallow than giving Kaepernick more airtime.
After Floyd’s killing and protests against police brutality intensified around the world, Goodell was forced to admit the league had been wrong not to listen to players who had been speaking out against systemic racism for years. He summoned the courage to utter the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” And he carefully avoided mention of Kaepernick.
The N.F.L. soon began co-opting the message. Sadly enough, the players have largely gone along with the plan. Kneeling protests waned to a trickle. The riot in Washington seemed to offer a prime opportunity for clamoring, unified protest. It didn’t happen. There were games to be played. Money to be made. Jobs to hold on to. And nobody with Kaepernick’s spine.
You have to hand it to the czars of football. They’ve neutralized the message. They made just enough room for the previously unthinkable in a sport so conservative, so connected to the police and the military and the flag. Think of the helmets with the social justice messaging and the names of victims of police shootings, and the pithy phrases painted on the edge of fields.
One such phrase: “It Takes All of Us.”
Well, all of us clearly does not include Kaepernick. As much as he would like to, he will never play again. This season of chaos, when he wasn’t called upon even as teams were steadily depleted by the virus, put an end to any such hope.
Another new motto: “End Racism.”
This from a league with a long, sordid history of discrimination. A league known to prize Black speed and strength while diminishing Black intelligence and leadership.
N.F.L. rosters are 70 percent African-American. There are only two Black head coaches. The league used to tell African-Americans they would get lead jobs if they just put in more patient years learning the craft. Done. Then came an all-too-familiar course correction: The series of recently hired white coaches who are heralded for their genius despite their glaring inexperience.
End Racism? Stop with the Orwellian hypocrisy.
What if the league had not turned its back on Kaepernick? What if, from the start, it had listened to him and started a sincere dialogue with Black players who emulated his protest?
How soon we forget his magnetic talent, lost in the passage of time and obscured by silly arguments that focus on his last struggling seasons leading a 49ers team with little talent and lackluster coaching.
To remember his potential, check out the YouTube highlights.
Watch his four touchdowns on the frigid New England night in 2012, when he dueled Brady’s Patriots and led the 49ers to a 41-34 win. Skip next to his playoff game in 2013 against Green Bay, when he rushed for 181 yards and outpassed Aaron Rodgers.
What might have been is part of the tragedy now. To flourish, the N.F.L. needs singular stars. If Kaepernick had not been rooted from the league, maybe he’s one of the quarterbacks guiding a team to the Super Bowl. Maybe he’s even the talk of it.
Of course, you aren’t likely to hear from Kaepernick as we approach the big game. Silence has become his mystique, which fuels an enduring power.
So who will do it? Who will bring him up, give him his due and keep telling the story? Who will keep the movement front and center, raw and real, instead of the stuff of manicured public-relations campaigns?
What a shame that this is an open question, since there is still so much work to be done.
What a shame, because “Kap was right” is not hard to say.