If Colin Kaepernick is driving on the road back into the NFL after being released by the 49ers, he just got a flat tire in Louisville on Monday night.
Kaepernick was unquestionably the most polarizing player in the NFL last season, a label stemming from his decision to kneel during the national anthem at NFL games in protest of social injustices. And since his release from San Francisco, he’s struggled to find another team. Plenty of reasons have been spewed in explanation: Maybe he’s no longer a starter-quality quarterback. Maybe he wouldn’t fit in with a certain team’s offensive scheme. Maybe he’d be a distraction.
But his case took another hit when during a rally in the Bluegrass State, President Donald Trump relayed a report by Bleacher Report’s trusted NFL scribe Mike Freeman, in which Freeman cites an unnamed AFC general manager who said a team would fear political backlash and a tweet from Trump if the team signs Kaepernick.
“Your San Francisco quarterback, I’m sure nobody ever heard of him,” Trump begins. “…There was an article today, it’s reported, that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump. Can you believe that?”
If just one general manager fears the attention brought by a negative Trump tweet, it’s plausible to think that Freeman’s report last week made others fear it as well. And now after Monday night’s rally, all 32 general managers are on notice with the Commander-In-Chief: Sign Kaepernick and feel the wrath of the 63 million people who voted for me, some of whom are fans of your team.
If you believe a Trump tweet can cause an international incident then surely it can create a headache for a sports team. Though not all of Trump’s followers are rabid as what may appear on social media or TV—a common mistake made when prognosticating the election last fall—Trump leverages that power as an illusion. Most of Trump’s tweets near 10,000 retweets with ease. He’s nearing 27 million followers on the site, and his early-morning missives have become part of everyday life.
And Trump has already made clear that he did not approve of Kaepernick’s protests last season.
“I think it’s personally not a good thing,” Trump told a Seattle radio station in August about Kaepernick’s protest. “I think it’s a terrible thing. And, you know, maybe he should find a new country that works better for him. Let him try. It won’t happen.”
Upon being released from San Francisco, Kaepernick pledged to end his anthem protest but not his fight, a move that stayed true to himself but also made him more palatable to the other 31 teams. He has donated half of the $1 million he promised last fall, and just recently his foundation announced $50,000 for food and water relief in Somalia and another $50,000 to the Meals on Wheels program that has become the posterchild for Trump’s recently proposed budget cuts.
But Trump’s rally speech only pushes NFL teams further away from Kaepernick. Even though teams find other excuses to not sign him—reasons that don’t hold water when closely examined—it’s clear that the quarterback is being blackballed. Some of the attempted justifications:
Kaepernick isn’t good anymore. This is the most popular one, but it seems to be based more on the 49ers’ 2–14 record and Kaepernick losing the starting QB job to Blaine Gabbert last season. But take into consideration that Kaepernick was coming off multiple off-season surgeries and his weight was down—so much that the QB admitted that he refused to weigh himself because he didn’t want to know.
Once Kaepernick earned the starting job, he proceeded to throw 16 touchdowns to four interceptions. His interception rate of 1.2% was the lowest of his career, and his touchdown rate of 4.8% was his second-highest. Kaepernick’s final four games of the season were arguably his strongest, averaging a 68.7% completion rate and 199 yards per game. Those numbers alone should debunk the idea that Kaepernick isn’t good enough to at least be a backup on someone’s roster. There are not 64 other quarterbacks in this league who can put up those stats, and you could argue there aren’t 32.
As a backup, Kaepernick needs to be the same kind of quarterback as the starter. Because Kaepernick thrives in a specific system, he has a narrower field of teams with which he can play. His career success has relied so heavily on a zone-read system that has mostly come and gone in the NFL. That notion almost holds Kaepernick’s mobility against him, as if his feet are an albatross and not a boon.
Also, this rule isn’t the case with other NFL franchises. The Panthers have Derek Anderson backing up Cam Newton. Shaun Hill was Teddy Bridgewater’s backup before the latter was injured last year. Matt Cassel backed up Marcus Mariota in Tennessee last year. Same with Mike Glennon in Tampa Bay behind Jameis Winston. If the argument is Kaepernick has to go somewhere that the starting quarterback is always mobile because he’s not a great pocket passer, then why is that not argued with all of these other teams?
NFL teams don’t want to deal with distractions reminiscent of Tim Tebow. Sure, Tebow brought plenty of attention—good and bad—to the NFL teams on which he played, but that didn’t stop four NFL teams from rostering him despite his career 47.9% completion rate.
This all creates mounting circumstantial evidence that Kaepernick is being ostensibly banned by NFL teams, and the latest Trump comments didn’t help his case. When less-accomplished quarterbacks like Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, Kellen Clemens and Josh McCown have jobs in the NFL, then it’s clear that something is up.
Granted, it was always a possibility Kaepernick wouldn’t find another job after San Francisco. He recognized from the jump that protesting could mean football martyrdom (and possibly even real-life martyrdom—Kaepernick has reportedly received death threats). It’s not a new revelation that football decision-makers tend to lean more right than left, and no league is tied closer to Trump than the NFL.
Former Bills coach Rex Ryan introduced Trump at a pre-election rally. The President named Jets owner Woody Johnson the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Patriots owner Robert Kraft flew on Air Force One last week, coach Bill Belichick is reportedly a member at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club and Tom Brady is a friend. Broncos GM John Elway attended Trump’s inauguration and, just this week, wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee urging them to confirm Trump’s Supreme Court pick.
However Kaepernick’s protest also elevated athlete activism to a height this generation of pro players had never experienced. He has helped give a voice to minority communities facing discrimination, and it should be lauded.
Kaepernick won the 49ers’ award for inspiration and courage, voted upon by his teammates in what should have assuaged fears of him tearing up a locker room. Both of Kaepernick’s professional coaches have stuck by him. Chip Kelly was unwavering in his support of Kaepernick during last season, and this week former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Kaepernick will “be a great quarterback [and] win championships.”
That may not be enough, though. Trump, right or wrong, now knows the power he can wield over an NFL team’s decision-making and the trouble he can bring them. Even if a team doesn’t believe those excuses and puts faith in Kaepernick, the now-tangible threat of the President getting involved could be enough to scare them away. The fear of one general manager now could have become the fear of all after Monday night.
The boogeyman is real, and he wears a red hat.