The Buffalo News appeared all out of sorts this week. Longtime sports columnist Jerry Sullivan referenced Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the “Scientific Discourse of Pathology” in his most recent story—the comments on which featured the names of both major Presidential candidates. Meanwhile, “locker room talk” pervaded the politics page. Altogether, the coverage resembled a special crossover TV episode, except in print and more unsettling.
Over at 1 Bills Drive, though, business went on as normal, as the PR staff saw only a “minimal” uptick in media requests for this week’s game against San Francisco. Maybe that’s because what’s coming Sunday has long been inevitable.
Football is no newcomer to the culture war currently masquerading as a national election, so it’s unsurprising that politics are finally crossing the last threshold and entering the field of play, in this case clad in a No. 7 jersey. Controversy, thy name is Colin Kaepernick. For six weeks, the 28-year-old has been the face of a nationwide discussion about oppression and patriotism. Now, he’s the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, which coach Chip Kelly announced on Tuesday.
The QB has said he’s solely focused on succeeding in that role while he’s with the team, and rightfully so, since his NFL future is in question. But there’s far more than that riding on his performance. Like it or not, Kaepernick’s off-field activism will be affected by his on-field play. At the same time, the league that has “encouraged” him to stand for the anthem would benefit from a strong game on his part. Let’s start there.
It’s no secret that ratings have been down for the NFL—an internal memo blamed the combustible (as in, burn it all down) Presidential election for the dip. But a more troubling cause could also be at play. In 2016, the league is suddenly bereft of superteams and superstars. The only undefeated squad is led by journeyman QB Sam Bradford, followed by a pack of nine maybe good teams with one loss each. The top passers in the league by rating are: one, Matt Ryan; two, the aforementioned journeyman; and three, even more-traveled Brian Hoyer. At the sport’s other two current glamour positions, the receiving and sack leaders are Marvin Jones and Lorenzo Alexander. If you are asking which leads which category, you are not alone.
Enter Kaepernick. The lack of compelling characters around the league has allowed discussion about his activism to go from a preseason talk show filler to one of the loudest regular season storylines, as everyone from Kate Upton to Barack Obama weighs in. And he’s done it despite logging zero snaps, meaning you could keep up with the national conversation without engaging with the actual games. That changes now. After investing in the storyline for six weeks, fans will be curious to find out how the external pressure (death threats included) affects Kaepernick’s game. Plus, how will his teammates rally around him? Will any opponents mock his movement with a salute after taking him down? What will they do during post-game handshakes? What else might happen?
Kaepernick is already second in the league in jersey sales, as of the last count. I think it’s fair to assume those wearing those threads will follow how he performs. The American majority that has opposed Kaepernick’s actions also has a reason to check out his debut. The fact that his first start comes against a coach who has stumped for Trump is only icing on the made-for-TV cake. As one segment of society (likely including liberals on the more critical side of previous football debates) suddenly became San Francisco fans, another group rage-quit the sport, once again proving that common ground isn’t so common in 2016.
But every party has a reason to tune in now. All of the talk can finally transform into monetizable interest for the NFL—as long as Kaepernick’s on-field play remains compelling. A bleh performance Sunday and the league could be left looking elsewhere for drama again.
Beyond hurting the NFL’s bottom line, in-game struggles could also imperil Kaepernick’s off-field efforts. Obviously, that shouldn’t be true. The validity of Kaepernick’s complaints have nothing to with his ability to throw a sluggo. And yet! It was one thing for everyone to order the No. 7 jersey in support of a player putting his principles above the standard protocol for backup quarterbacks: “to be quiet and sit in the shadows” (Trent Dilfer’s words). It’s another to rep a player who, say, completes 59% of his passes and boasts a 6:5 TD:INT ratio, as Kaepernick did last year. His weekly calls for social justice during press conferences would be less viral if they are interrupted by questions about his poor performance.
On the flipside, strong play has the potential to take his movement to a new level. It would be harder to brush aside his activism as a dereliction of duty if he’s succeeding at work, and easier for him to rally the grassroot support needed to make meaningful change. A few wins would help Kaepernick gain a more consistent audience with the American people as well as those in power. To be anachronistic and overly simplistic, there’s a reason we remember Muhammad Ali’s fight for social justice more than Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s. The outcome of Kaepernick’s call for action—sadly but certainly—hinges on the impact he makes on Sundays.
Which leaves us with the man in the middle of it all. Four seasons and two coaches ago, Ron Jaworski said Kaepernick could be “one of the greatest quarterbacks ever” after he led the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance. His QBR has dropped each year since, bottoming out at 47 last year. The “National Anthem Protest” portion of his Wikipedia page is already longer than the sections covering his 2014, ’15 and ’16 seasons, while the coach who once helped him reach stardom is now saying “I don’t respect” Kaepernick’s actions. In 2013, Jaworski said “the sky’s the limit.” Now what’s boundless is Kaepernick’s ultimate NFL legacy. Bradford and Ryan have shown it’s not too late for a career resurgence, which paired with his activism could make Kaepernick one of the country’s most recognizable football players.
There’s still the possibility that the commotion he’s caused this season could go down as a historical footnote. But on Sunday, those options will narrow. So while both sides in his ongoing political struggle—and the league’s upper management—will pay close attention to how he plays Sunday, no one has more at stake than Kaepernick himself.
No matter what happens, one conclusion is assured. In the Point After at the end of this week’s Sports Illustrated, Michael Rosenberg argued that sports are providing a welcome respite from an election that “makes me want to push the fast-forward button.” It’s a nice idea. But if the hullabaloo around Kaepernick’s first start Sunday teaches us anything, it’s that the issues facing us today have become impossible to avoid.