• Teams found reasons to say no to even bringing Kaepernick in for a look, and every last team found one.
  • Kaepernick himself may recede from the news (unless he does get signed), but the movement he inspired looks only to grow—both in sports and in the wider society
By Jack Dickey
September 08, 2017

Last weekend every NFL team cut its roster from 90 or thereabouts to 53, shoving a thousand putative pros into unemployment. Some of them will be heard from again, but most won’t, the game’s fringes being an awful place to try to hang on. Teams are necessarily harsh when Week 1 comes around no matter how undiscriminating they were in the spring. In May, teams say yes; in September, they say no.

Unless the person who wants a job is Colin Kaepernick, in which case the no has stretched from spring to fall. The former 49ers quarterback remains unsigned as the season begins, and given the aforementioned halving of the workforce, he should expect to stay that way for a while, barring the right injury to the right quarterback at the right time.

A great many commentators—some acting in better faith than others—have spent the summer rationalizing and overthinking Kaepernick’s extended joblessness. There are countless film breakdowns and anonymous-quote parades contending that Kaepernick wouldn’t make a very good backup because he must play in a system that fits him just so, and that time has passed him (and the read-option offense in which he once flourished) by.

What these contentions offer in plausibility they squander with irrelevance, for they have been furnished in defense of the insane idea that teams have been shrewd in avoiding an accomplished, experienced veteran quarterback with game-breaking upside coming off a rebound season. No, says the wised-up NFL observer, wouldn’t want anything to do with a player like that. We’d sign him if he were better. But he might not conclusively beat out our starter. Might not bring us to a Super Bowl.

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Lots of players have greater shortcomings than Kaepernick’s, with smaller shots at winning a starting job and excelling in it, and still they get signed. Still they at least have chances to shine in practice or in film study. Competition is the NFL standard.

But Kaepernick can’t compete. He can’t compete because the coaches and personnel men have contested the competitions in their heads, and he didn’t win, better luck next time.

The reason Kaepernick was forced to compete in imaginary camp battles rather than a real one—you’ll note here that he lost to all 81 quarterbacks who are on NFL depth charts this week, and even, I suppose, to all those cut last week—was that he kneeled during the national anthem last year to protest police violence, and a lot of people didn’t like that. This all feels too obvious to write, and yet.

Some of the people who didn’t like it were football fans or season-ticket holders. Some of them were cops. Some of them were coaches and executives. In ways big and small they all made it apparent that they did not want him signed. They set a high hurdle. In every front office the calculus shifted from the usual “Can he conceivably help us win enough to justify his salary and practice reps?” to “Can he conceivably help us win enough to justify his salary, practice reps and opprobrium from the right?” It’s a far tougher sell, especially for a backup quarterback who might not see game action unless things go awry.

Teams found themselves looking for reasons to say no to him, and every last one of them found some. The only other players who have been subjected to such rigorous pre-assessment after similar on-field success are honest-to-god addicts and violent criminals. I can’t pretend to know whether that’s an accurate standard, actuarially speaking, for pro football’s owners and gurus to apply to Kaepernick. But it’s hard to call that something other than blackballing.

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A few NFL leaders have been willing to imply that Kaepernick is playing by different rules. Giants owner John Mara said so many fans had written to assail Kaepernick that a team signing him would risk widespread alienation. Jaguars boss Tom Coughlin said he never even considered Kaepernick: “We did the study and the research and we weren’t interested.” (He declined to elaborate on whether that study and research went beyond Kaepernick’s football abilities. Jaguars owner Shad Khan had said he’d be happy to have Kaepernick on his team if the coaches and executives wanted him.) The bulk of the league’s franchises persist in pretending he’s unsigned for football reasons.

Kaepernick’s defenders know better. Indeed, part of the reason his protest struck millions last year was that a then-28-year-old quarterback with life left in his arm and legs had staked his NFL future on his beliefs. I’m not sure the protest would have meant as much from someone with more job security, and certainly had he been signed in the offseason Kaepernick’s defiance would resonate less today. Instead the NFL martyred him.

Talking with Dan Patrick recently, SportsCenter anchor Sage Steele said she doesn’t plan on discussing Kaepernick much during the season—she made the case for showing more highlights instead. “We’re getting back to … sports.” 

Yes, with actual games upon us now, Kaepernick’s protest and the fallout will recede as a football-related topic, earning less attention from the outlets that have sports fans’ attention. How could the story even be covered? Will there be hushed asides on game broadcasts every time a third-rate backup enters a game? I’m imagining weekly stories inside newspaper sports sections with the headline “Kaepernick Still Unsigned” in which the amount of text below keeps shrinking by half but never hits zero, along the lines of Zeno’s paradox.

Come Sunday, those fans whom Kaepernick inspired will likely be searching for ways to channel their energy and disappointment. Some will wear Kaepernick jerseys, I trust, and I expect an avalanche of angry tweets after the first interceptions thrown by Scott Tolzien, Blake Bortles and Tom Savage. 

But I would imagine Kaepernick sees his unemployment as a reflection on the prevalence of injustice, not as the injustice itself. (I wish I could ask him, but he hasn’t given an interview in ages.) His protest was football-related only because it had to be—because the game and its stars possess an unmatched cultural foothold in these fractured times.

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Optimistically, his blackballing would have a greater impact were it to diminish that cultural power and the role escapism plays in modern life. Cultural values and for-profit sports got awfully bound-up awfully quickly, and I can’t imagine anything good will come of it going forward. We’d all be better off reading Radley Balko to get mad rather than SportingNews.com. Kaepernick’s unemployment prompted hundreds to rally in midtown Manhattan in August; think of what his protest could accomplish in the coming years should it cascade beyond the boundaries of pro football and popular culture. 

Yet even without Kaepernick, the NFL will not lack for demonstrations during the national anthem. In Philly, after the terror in Charlottesville, defensive end Chris Long joined safety Malcolm Jenkins in protest. In Cleveland a dozen Browns kneeled during the anthem one night. In Seattle, Michael Bennett—the recent victim of exactly the type of injustice that Kaepernick protested—plans to sit through the anthem all season. He has called upon white players to join him.

There will be more of these protests, not fewer, and that has everything to do with Kaepernick’s action last fall. He led the way, cleared the path, and took all the biggest hits. Ah, says the savvy NFL observer, who has just now snapped awake. Has he thought about converting to fullback?

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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