It may be premature, though only by a week or two, to declare this a lost season for the 49ers. It is not too soon, however, to state that Colin Kaepernick, the team’s backup quarterback, has won.
The guy who’s been injured and ineffective for the better part of two years, who seems less and less likely to get so much as a sniff of another championship, has secured his legacy. Whether he starts another game, or plays another NFL season, Kaepernick is now destined to be remembered by many as a champion of civil rights, a principled, if not always eloquent, advocate for justice in the black community.
The question is now, how big will he win? On Sunday, over 40 NFL players joined his protest, by kneeling or raising their fists—more than double the number from the previous week. After an inauspicious rollout, No. 7 has refined his message, correcting the misperception that he meant any disrespect to the military. He’s found vast support beyond the NFL, from Twitter—check out #VeteransForKaepernick—to college and high school football, to the WNBA and the National Women’s Soccer League. Howard University cheerleaders have kneeled in protest, as have members of a marching band performing at a recent Oakland A’s game. Last Wednesday, Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr cited the value of the national conversation Kaepernick has sparked, then went further.
“No matter what side of the spectrum you’re on, I hope that everyone’s disgusted by what’s going on around the country,” said Kerr, referring to two recent shootings of black men, one in Tulsa, another in Charlotte.
Kaepernick has been praised and reviled, although many of the criticisms leveled against him have been knee-jerk, poorly reasoned, racist, and/or all of the above. Congressman Steve King, R-Iowa, long a reliable voice for the foaming-at-the-mouth wing of his party, described Kaepernick's silent protests as “sympathetic to ISIS.”
Less offensive, but wrongheaded nonetheless, was ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer’s implication that Kaepernick, “as a backup quarterback whose job is to be quiet and sit in the shadows and get the starter ready,” wouldn’t be staging these protests, and generating these discussions, if he just knew his place. Kap’s kneeldowns, Dilfer continued, have “torn at the fabric of the team.”
Really, Trent? Because by all accounts, the 49ers emerged from a late August players-only meeting—held to give Kaepernick the chance to explain his protest, and for his teammates to sound off—more united than before.
The following Thursday night, at the Niners’ preseason finale in San Diego, Kaepernick was joined in his protest by teammate Eric Reid. The same evening, Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane showed solidarity with them. The movement swelled with the start of the regular season, and has kept on growing. While it’s never disappeared, the initial outrage provoked by No. 7's protests (He’s dissing veterans! He’s making $12 million and he’s complaining! He’s adopted and his parents are white!) has been shouldered aside by important conversations people are having about the actual issue Kaepernick was raising. For Kap, that's a win.
Meanwhile, ignoring the wishes of many irate members of the Twitterverse, the 49ers did not cut Kaepernick. In fact, the organization has gone above and beyond the call in supporting its backup quarterback. Considering that Niners on-field highlights could be rather sparse this season, let us instead celebrate those who’ve responded to Kaepernick’s actions with grace, wisdom and equanimity. At the top of the list:
—Jed York. The team’s balanced, thoughtful initial “statement” on the matter—which the 49ers CEO at the very least signed off—celebrated the anthem while underlining such “American principles as … freedom of expression.” Since then, after discussing the issue with Kaepernick and asking how he could help, York committed to matching his employee’s donation of $1 million to charities affiliated with the quarterback’s causes. “It’s actually one of the Yorks’ finest, franchise-bonding moments of the last few tumultuous years,” writes the San Jose Mercury News’s Tim Kawakami, a frequent (and justified) critic of York’s.
—Chip Kelly. From the start, the head coach has had his player’s back, recognizing Kaepernick’s right to protest, and the righteousness of his protest. Kelly’s deft handling of the matter has resulted in conversations that have led to stronger bonds between the players—to the apparent annoyance of one Bay Area columnist who very much wanted the coach to admit that Kaepernick had no business talking about issues of race after a football game…even if that’s what reporters were asking him about. (Unsurprisingly, Kelly kept his cool and continued to defend his quarterback against the questions of the aforementioned columnist).
—Doug Baldwin. Prefacing his remarks at a September 22nd press conference by saying, “This is not an indictment of our law enforcement agencies,” the Seahawks wide out and son of a police officer pointedly noted that the number of bad cops is “very minute.” However, he continued, “we also know there are laws and policies in place that are not correcting the issue in our society right now.”
In a remarkable moment, for a midweek NFL press conference, Baldwin proceeded to challenge the attorneys general of all 50 states to review their “training policies for police and law enforcement to eliminate militaristic cultures while putting a higher emphasis on de-escalation tactics and crisis management measures.”
He got a prompt reply from Washington state attorney general Bob Ferguson on Twitter:
—Chris Long: While he personally would “never kneel for the anthem,” the Patriots defensive end said he respected the players do. It is possible, in other words, to mentally walk and chew gum at the same time, to “respect and find a lot of truth in what these guys are talking about”—these guys meaning his black teammates who are joining the protest—“and not kneel. Those aren't mutually exclusive ideas.”
"I’m going to listen to my peers because I respect those guys,” he said, “and I can't put myself in their shoes." He hasn’t lived as a black men in American, and so he is not going to reflexively dismiss what they have to say.
The above-mentioned have been joined by many others, all of whom demonstrate the ability to balance opposing ideas; to hold firm convictions while acknowledging the legitimate concerns of the other side. This is the path to progress.
A week or so before Kaepernick’s protest hit the headlines, I saw Dr. Harry Edwards at a 49ers practice. Edwards, a professor emeritus of Sociology at the University of California-Berkeley, has been a consultant for the Niners for three decades. Having worked with him on a story before—Edwards was deeply involved, behind the scenes, in the fists-to-the-sky protest of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics—I reintroduced myself. I brought up the Justice Department’s damning report on the Baltimore Police Department, released the previous August. Six officers had been prosecuted, but none found guilty, following the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody after being arrested for carrying an illegal switchblade.
The report found that Baltimore police for years had “hounded black residents who make up most of the city’s population,” according to a New York Times summary, “systematically stopping, searching and arresting them, often with little provocation or rationale.” DOJ investigations of police departments in Cleveland, Ohio and Ferguson, Missouri had been similarly scathing. To deny the existence of institutional bias in this country is to impersonate an ostrich.
Edwards mentioned the Los Angeles Department, which investigated 1,356 allegations of “biased policing” between 2012 and ’14, and concluded that its officers had been found guilty on none of those occasions. Zero.
“So, we have a problem there,” concluded Edwards, who at 73 remains an imposing figure: he drew interest from both the AFL and NFL, but chose instead to accept a fellowship at Cornell, where he earned his Ph.D.
“On the other hand,” he continued—and this surprised me, for I’d come to think of him as a firebrand—“there’s absolutely no question that, just as black parents tell their sons and daughters, ‘Here’s what you do when you encounter a cop on the streets,’ the sons and daughters of cops tell their moms and dads, every day they put on their uniform, and put on that badge, ‘Hey, be careful out there, because we want you to come home tonight.’ That’s what we’ve got to wrap our minds around.”
Edwards isn’t interested in throwing rhetorical Molotov Cocktails—unlike Mike Ditka and others whose anti-Kap comments have betrayed their ignorance of the First Amendment, how democracy works, and what constitutes patriotism. Like his friend Kaepernick, Edwards is more interested in making genuine progress, which isn’t possible if you can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.