When Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, decided he no longer needed to observe the US national anthem because of the color of his skin, he was well fortified by a sizable contract with the team. He certainly was not stupid enough to kneel during the anthem before he received his big payday. But once he had his guaranteed money, and after it was clear that Coach Chip Kelly was not going to start him at his position at the beginning of his season, he suddenly was overcome with righteousness. Kaepernick, a privileged adopted son of middle class parents in California, declared with mock piety and not a little arrogance, that he had seceded from his country and declared solidarity with the unnamed oppressed of American society.
With the country roiling from a spate of well publicized (ranging from questionable to outright murder) shootings of black men by (mostly non-black) police officers in multiple states, Kaepernick gained a quick following, with the airwaves and the blogosphere buzzing with indignation and halleluiahs. Kaepernick not only had a right to express his opinions, enshrined in the First Amendment, but society had an obligation to commend him for his civic leadership and his conscientious objector status. It was Mohammed Ali being drafted against his will all over again and we’re all mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.
It was then that Kaepernick, swelled by the seeming success of his interpretation of personal protest, started to believe his own press clippings. He opted out of the final year of his 49ers contract, and waited for the lucrative free agent offers to roll on in. After all, the NFL had a glut of mediocre journeymen quarterbacks, while 6’5” 233 pound mobile signal callers with a gun for an arm that had been to the Super Bowl were in pretty short supply.
In 2017 reality crashed down on Kaepernick instead. On paper, his numbers seemed impressive—59.8% career completion rate over six seasons and over 12,000 yards passing, a 2 to 1 advantage in touchdowns to interceptions, and over 2,000 thousand yards rushing. But the film told a different story. Shaky accuracy in the pocket, inability to read defenses, failure to properly check down on receivers. Once flushed out into the open field he generated the excitement of a top running back, overlooking his 37 fumbles (15 lost). But it is clear he is no Russell Wilson or Ben Roethlisberger. His scrambling is a symptom of not being able to run the offense, rather than as a way of extending plays in the face of a solid defense.
The phone on the desk of Kaepernick’s agent didn’t ring. The silence was deafening. Sports pundits wondered out loud whether the quarterback’s activism was earning him a cold shoulder from teams. Was it racism? Was it owner collusion?
Nope—it was neither. Yes, the US has problems. More a great salad bowl rather than a great melting pot, the country still shelters bigoted attitudes by large swaths of its citizenry and still tends to turn a blind eye to police brutality and malfeasance while displaying ignorance about the terrible costs of an over-reliance on arrests and excessive incarceration. But few NFL teams are likely to want to sign an American player who has forgotten how important it means to maintain his solidarity with all Americans, in spite of benefiting from its opportunities. Because NFL fans haven’t forgotten about what it means to be an American, and have little patience for someone who has. Sure, NFL fans like to be winners, and will overlook serious character flaws in players in exchange for a shot at the Lombardi Trophy. And in the calculus of selfishness versus winning ball games, Kaepernick’s scale just doesn’t tip in a team’s favor.
After Kaepernick doubled down on his repudiation of his country by spending the 4th of July in Ghana, celebrating his “personal independence”, retired NFL quarterback Michael Vick suggested that maybe Kaepernick should tone his act down. Vick, famous for rehabilitating himself after a stint in jail over a dogfighting conviction, quipped that the ex-49’er should cut down his large Afro and show that he was more interested in playing in the NFL again rather than spending his time doing non-football things to draw attention to himself. Kaepernick shot back that Vick was guilty of drinking the NFL Kool-Aid, and activists all over raged over the indignity of Vick’s comments, demanding an apology.
Vick promptly obliged, apologizing for any unintentional offense given, but not backing down on his suggestion that Kaepernick had lost his way. I could have told Vick not to bother. Kaepernick, in spite of the swelled opinion of himself, has already played his last down in the NFL.
Maybe Kaepernick will be spotted scrambling for yards with the Saskatchewan Rough Riders or the Montreal Alouettes. Don’t hold your breath.