Whether you are into sports or not, the name Colin Kaepernick rings a bell. The controversies surrounding his talent, his career, his situation, and his political positions have continued to hum, even with the media looking for more “new” news. It’s sort of like a fly that starts bothering you, landing on your arm and such, but even with your conversations steering you away, it always holds some of your attention. His continuity as an activism icon is fascinating, and his lack of NFL opportunities is as well.
The reason I am deciding to return to this topic is due to the recent developments with the Super Bowl halftime show. Multiple artists and musicians have refused to feature in America’s most watched concert, and arguably the greatest honor an artist can receive, in support of Kaepernick’s unconfirmed barring from the NFL.
Around 15 months ago, one of my fellow writers and current senior, Jonathan Abbo, wrote an amazing piece detailing the circumstances surrounding this NFL athlete. You can find his article here and read the backstory to the Colin Kaepernick controversy.
To summarize: Colin Kaepernick is polarizing. His talent blew the NFL away, scrambling his way to a Super Bowl and a sneak peek of a new future for the San Francisco 49ers. His politics then turned that breeze into a storm, as his kneeling during the national anthem to protest the wrongdoings against African Americans in the United States cost him his starting quarterback position. The POTUS, NBA superstars, celebrities, and other influential people took sides, and Kaepernick has slid out of the NFLand has not had a job since, even with his being seemingly (and sometimes even obviously) more talented than current NFL quarterbacks.
People find kneeling for the anthem so controversial because of its conflict of interest. While many see the action as an opportunity for individual expression, the timing of the kneeling is at issue. The Star Spangled banner is known as a time for respect and honor, both towards our country and the people who protect it. The point the players are trying to make is that in a country where these racial issues persist, they don’t feel they have to stand for the anthem. But the opposition claims that politics should remain in its own arena and not impact the tone of the stadium by displaying “disrespect” to our nation.
While this may be a controversial opinion for some, I do not disagree with Kaepernick’s decision to kneel for the anthem; I actually think he is doing the most he can to bring his strong opinion to the forefront. He is expressing his right to freedom of “speech” (body language can speak louder than words sometimes) given to him by this great country, doing so on such an enormous platform every influencer wishes they had. It is, however, a fair response to say that Kaepernick could have kept his politics off the field, as many impactful athletes have done before.
Take LeBron James for example, the most influential basketball player in the world, and arguably the most influential athlete in the world, behind Cristiano Ronaldo. He is very critical of the president and other social matters on his television shows/appearances and on Twitter, yet continues to leave his politics off the court. Yes, his famous feud with Laura Ingraham over if he should just “Shut up and dribble” made national headlines in February, and his political opinions are no secret, rather incredibly public. But a general take away from his Twitter-war is that athletes are more than just entertainment; they have the same ability to share opinions and digest information as regular people do.
Where do players fit: on the side of influence, on the side of “shut up and dribble”, or walking on the fine line of both? This line is the subject of much conversation, a conversation that hasn’t slowed down since September of 2016.
Now, the reason he still does not have a job is beyond understanding for many. He is clearly a more skilled player than even some starters, but he isn’t even a BACKUP. This baffles many, including myself. People rush to blame the owners, as there are only two owners of thirty-two that are of color (Shahid Khan of the Jaguars and Kim Pegula of the Bills), citing this lack of sympathy as a reason. Some go to the extreme and explain that these owners are racist. Others just explain that they could care less and say Kaepernick had it coming because his following of unspoken league-wide rules (standing for the anthem) comes with the million dollar contract; he broke the rules, so owners can’t trust him anymore.
But I’m not sure that these explanations break the surface of the actual problem surrounding Kaepernick’s situation. Yes, there may be some underlying racism within the ownership of NFL franchises, and it should totally be eradicated (And a quick shout out to the growing support for female leadership in sports. Keep it going.). Yet, here is my bold analysis:
Colin Kaepernick dug his own grave.
Let me explain the process: Colin Kaepernick was sensational in the 49ers’ run to the Super Bowl, but his play in the following three seasons was average at best, winning and losing his job seemingly every week. Already, this isn’t a prime NFL situation. Still roster-able and sometimes startable, but on the decline. Next, he begins his kneeling display, shocking and alerting the league as a whole. Even when he opted-out of his contract with the 49ers with unspectacular but good enough statistics, the nation was still taking sides, and his celebrity grew; he became a pop culture icon, one that stood for equality and freedom of speech. Truly fascinating and incredibly admirable.
The general approach to this situation is that his exemption is despicable, unacceptable, and telling of a corrupt NFL system. However, what many seem to miss is how his growth into such a polarizing figure has made him untouchable in the eyes of NFL management. Put yourself in the position of an NFL owner/general manager/head coach. Running a team is an incredibly difficult job with so many people to try to keep happy (the fans, the staff, the coaches, the players, etc.). Any team leader has to be able to guide the morale of the team to one of confidence and trust. Now, imagine trying to maintain such a balance in a locker room with someone such as Kaepernick inside. Not to say he isn’t human anymore and cannot be normal; that isn’t fair. But to say that he has eclipsed the ability to hold a neutral, non-political approach to sports is difficult to debate against because he has displayed it on the field. Also, try to imagine the media attention it would bring your team. The cheers and the criticisms. The scrutiny and the spotlight. This will prove difficult for some, if not many of your players, and it will be nearly impossible to maintain everyone’s happiness, or even their satisfaction. Also, what if he isn’t as advertised? Maybe his absence has cost him, or his play really was on the decline? Then you just created a spectacle for nothing, and make yourself seem worse nonetheless.
Kaepernick has put owners in a lose-lose situation: sign him, and you please the media but also allow them to shine the spotlight on you and your organization; don’t sign him, and you are viewed as a despicable group denying a proven, talented player an opportunity because of his controversial views.
As Kaepernick put it in his infamous Nike commercial: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”. His point stands true to this moment, and may ultimately be the reason we never hear of his return. His compelling beliefs have struck the country in such an extreme manner that the nation and Kaepernick himself may struggle to recover from, for better or for worse.