Colin Kaepernick is six feet four inches tall. He has one of the best touchdown-to-interception ratios in National Football League history, and he won’t turn 31 until November. Reportedly, Kaepernick is in shape, and despite his ascendance as one of America’s most visible, if taciturn, civil rights activists — and now a Nike pitchman — he wants to continue playing quarterback.
However, six seasons after emerging to lead the San Francisco 49ers within a hair’s breadth of a Super Bowl title, his professional football career appears to be over. We know why, of course. As of last week, it has now been two years since Kaepernick first took a knee on the sidelines as the national anthem played before a preseason game in San Diego. The 32 teams, led by their franchise owners and general managers, would have us believe that it is a mere coincidence that none of them have offered Kaepernick employment in the past two NFL off-seasons, and appear unlikely to do so this fall. And this, folks, is perhaps the sole reason why commissioner Roger Goodell finds himself struggling to manage a public-relations crisis over racial justice. The NFL has refused to do the one thing that probably could have ended this whole mess for them: give Kaepernick a job, or at least the realistic chance at one.
This is something that the players have articulated directly to the league’s fraternity of owners. In April, the New York Times published audio of an October 2017 closed-door meeting in which safety Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s former 49ers teammate and the first to kneel alongside him, said to the team owners in the room that “nobody,” meaning no owners, “stepped up and said ‘we support Colin’s right to do this.’ We all let him become Public Enemy No. 1 in this country, and he still doesn’t have a job.” Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Chris Long, who is white, said in the same meeting that “If he was on a roster right now, all this negativeness and divisiveness could be turned into a positive.” But none of the owners — even those with teams that would improve with Kaepernick on their rosters — addressed those points either in the meeting, or afterwards. By continuing to ignore Kaepernick, the league has justified the process by which President Trump and others have turned the quarterback into a pariah.
Those chickens are now coming home to roost, as the league’s Kaepernick troubles are now worse than ever. On Thursday, an arbitrator ruled that the quarterback’s collusion grievance against the league will be allowed to proceed. Four days later, ESPN reported that Nike is including him as part of a new “Just Do It” ad campaign marking 30 years since it launched the indelible slogan. It features a black and white image of Kaepernick looking directly into the camera, with the tagline “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” written in white across the bridge of his nose. His Afro frames his face in a dark halo, the kind you’d see in stained-glass windows in a church.
It is discombobulating to see a man now primarily known for his civil rights work being consecrated by Nike, a company famously accused of sweatshop abuses in the 1990s — and on Labor Day, no less. (An email to Nike requesting comment on the sweatshop issue was not immediately returned.) However, far be it from me to discourage corporations from taking potentially controversial political stances. This one may put the NFL in quite the bind, seeing as the swoosh is on every single NFL jersey. It’s on the gear that coaches wear on the sidelines. Nike signed an 8-year extension with the league last March to continue making league uniforms and apparel. The Nike customer base is not necessarily the same as the mostly white NFL audience.
People who either disagree with that message or mischaracterize the kneeling as “anthem protests” began burning Nike gear that they’d already purchased, perhaps seeking some karmic refund. Country singer John Rich of the Big & Rich duo tweeted an image of the intentionally destroyed Nike socks worn by his soundman. Other dissenters began doctoring images of Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals safety who left his career willingly to enlist in the Army after the September 11 terrorist attacks and was later killed in Afghanistan in a friendly-fire incident. That continues today, despite the Tillman family’s pleas last September for conservatives to stop exploiting Tillman’s image.
Nike surely planned for this kind of reaction. There were plenty of posts from people planning to buy Nike shoes and apparel now that the company took this stance. Nike made a business move, to be sure. The NFL needs to now do the same.
Kaepernick needs to be given a chance, and a genuine one, to make an NFL roster. Even from my perspective as a former NFL employee and a lifelong fan, I can name at least a dozen teams that would be better today were they to sign him as a starter or a backup. The Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles Chargers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers would all improve. So would the Seattle Seahawks, who postponed a Kaepernick camp visit in April when he wouldn’t promise to forego kneeling again. So would the Denver Broncos — whose general manager, John Elway, inadvertently helped Kaepernick make his collusion case when he claimed in August that he’d offered the quarterback a contract that he refused. “You know what, and I said this a while ago: Colin had his chance to be here. We offered him a contract. He didn’t take it,” Elway said, conveniently failing to mention that it was below market value and offered at a time before Kaepernick began his protest in 2016.
Imagine if Kaepernick had been given a chance to earn a spot on any of these teams, and just didn’t make the cut. The time away from the game has surely eroded some of the dynamic ability he exhibited during his breakout 2012 season, and he may not be as limber or quick as he once was. Had he been given a tryout and failed, he would likely have faded from the headlines somewhat, unable to make the case the league discriminated against him for his views that people of color — who make up the large majority of the NFL’s workforce — should not be subjugated in the United States or elsewhere. Instead, the league helped make Kaepernick who he is today by indulging the reactionary whims of bigots and demagogues.
Kaepernick has a chosen profession, and it isn’t endorser or even civil rights activist. That work found him once he was blocked from performing his trade at the highest level. We may all feel that his valuable brain would be better put to use doing what he’s doing now, but that isn’t our choice. It certainly isn’t President Trump’s decision, as much as he would like it to be. If we want to hold on to the fiction that sports is perhaps our last meritocracy, then the Buffalo Bills would sign Kaepernick today and start him ahead of someone named Nathan Peterman. I doubt that he’d just shut up and throw, but surely he’d do a better job.