We are infatuated with symbols in America: the Stars and Stripes, the Liberty Bell, Confederate statues. This, as much as anything, explains why Colin Kaepernick remains unsigned. It’s not Kaepernick’s national-anthem protests—other players have protested during the anthem, and they have jobs. But Kaepernick was first and far away the most prominent, which made him the symbol of the movement.
Kaepernick is a symbol just as Ray Rice is a symbol. Their actions were very different, obviously. But NFL teams will gladly take five men who act and think like Colin Kaepernick before signing Kaepernick himself, just as they often take players who commit domestic violence but want nothing to do with Rice. Teams are not taking any kind of political or moral stand. They just don’t want to be associated with a symbol.
They do this because they understand American consumers. They know most of us won’t bother to look up their left guard’s criminal record but will act outraged if they sign Ray Rice. And they know that Americans love their favorite sport and favorite team so much that they will happily pretend they don’t notice a cornerback kneeling during the anthem. But you can’t pretend you don’t see Kaepernick—especially if he ends up starting at quarterback. His presence spurs questions that make us uncomfortable. The NFL would prefer that you order another beer and check on your fantasy team.
I believe this about Kaepernick: Everything that has happened since he hit free agency, up to and including the hate march and terrorist attack in Charlottesville, Va., this weekend, has only reinforced his desire to take a stand. You can agree with him, disagree with him or partially agree with him. It’s your right. But he came by his beliefs honestly and believes them wholeheartedly, and if you think he is going to walk them back now, you don’t understand him at all.
The truth is that Kaepernick can be an activist and a football player. He has the time and ability to do both, just as there are dentists who train for marathons, accountants who serve on university boards, entrepreneurs who run for city councils, and Pro Bowl players with four girlfriends. You may recall that, a few years ago, there was a prominent businessman who publicly doubted the birthplace of the President of the United States. When Donald Trump was ripping Barack Obama at every turn, did anybody question his commitment to the Trump Organization?
You might think that the Charlottesville tragedy would open some eyes and make NFL owners understand that Kaepernick makes some good points. More likely, this just makes them want to run even faster away from our country’s racial divide.
Some people in and around the NFL, including 49ers general manager John Lynch, have suggested that Kaepernick publicly declare his desire to play football. This is ludicrous on several levels. Of course he wants to play football—ask anybody who has ever played with or coached him. I don’t recall people demanding that Greg Hardy publicly declare that he wanted to play football. NFL teams interview free agents privately. If they are genuinely curious about Kaepernick’s desire, they can call Kaepernick and a dozen former teammates and coaches.
But this request is not about due diligence. It’s about putting Kaepernick in his place. NFL executives want Kaepernick to publicly kneel at the altar of football. They want fans to see him as a player who can help their team win instead of as a symbol. And he won’t do it because if he bows to that pressure, it reduces the power of his message.
You can say that Kaepernick’s anthem protest took place during his workday, which makes him, in theory, a distraction on the job. That is technically true, but on a practical level, standing for the national anthem has nothing to do with playing quarterback. I’ve stood for the anthem hundreds of times while covering games, and it never made my stories better.
Kaepernick is thoughtful and soft-spoken. He is not a threat to anybody’s family—just to our glorified image of ourselves. His message is that we are flawed, and we are failing our neediest people, and that’s what scares people. We’d rather just think of ourselves as the greatest damn country in the history of the world, put our hands over our hearts as military jets fly overhead, then cheer for the opening kickoff.
A lot of Americans don’t want to hear what Kaepernick stands for—that police can sometimes be brutal or that white males can be terrorists, too. The racist “white nationalists” in Charlottesville are a small segment of the populace, but with all their talk of “preserving a culture” and “carrying on a heritage,” they are just an extreme version of the Make America Great Again sentiment that helped fuel Trump’s rise. It is easy to take comfort in the past, not because it was better than the future but because we survived it.
Kaepernick wants a better future. Again: You may not agree with him on everything—that’s fine!—but let’s stop perpetuating the myth that he doesn’t care about football, or that he is asking for too much money, or that he isn’t good enough to be on a roster. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Thad Lewis, Matt McGloin, Ryan Mallett and two McCowns (Josh and Luke) are on NFL rosters. If you think Kaepernick is demonstrably worse than every other NFL quarterback, you are letting your political views cloud your football judgment.
And let’s not pretend that NFL owners were so offended by what Kaepernick said and did. People buy NFL teams because it’s fun, and it makes them feel better about themselves. Owners don’t want to walk into their country clubs as the guy who signed Colin Kaepernick. They don’t want people to look at them and see that symbol.
Kaepernick needs to find an exception to this rule. It’s been harder than I expected, and possibly harder than he expected. Kaepernick needs to keep waiting, keep hoping that somebody does what should have been done months ago.
Colin Kaepernick wants to be an NFL quarterback and a social activist. He can separate the two. Why can’t we?