Many people are tired of hearing about Colin Kaepernick and his social activism crusade because, apparently, they want their sports and politics separate, but I think it’s really because discussing real, complex issues can make a lot of us uncomfortable. It’s important for us to confront these issues head on, as Kaepernick and others (such as safety Eric Reid) have done and continue to do, because it forces us to deal with things like racism, discuss them, and possibly even come to terms with our own relationship to them.
First of all, let’s get it out of the way right now that none of these NFL players have been kneeling or protesting because they don’t support the men and women fighting for the US overseas. Sure, I can see how someone could mistake kneeling during the national anthem as a criticism of America’s ever-churning war machine (a well-earned criticism if you ask me), but Kaepernick cleared that all up with his answer to the very first question he ever received on this topic.
During the first media session when he addressed the situation, Kaepernick said he would continue to sit/kneel until he saw some positive change throughout America. When asked what specifically he’d like to see change he said, “police brutality, there’s people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. Cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That’s not right.” The next question he received after that response was about whether he thought his actions would be perceived as an attack on the men and women who serve in the US army, to which Kaepernick replied:
“I have great respect for men and women who have fought for this country. I have family, I have friends that have gone and fought for this country. And they fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice. For everyone. And that’s not happening… I’ve seen circumstances where men and women who served in the military, have come back and been treated unjustly by the country they fought for. And been murdered by the country they fought for. On our land. That’s not right.”
I think it’s fair to say Kaepernick made the subject and aim of his protests pretty fucking clear cut right from the start. That interview happened in August 2016, and 20 months later there are still people that are either ignorant to the facts of the situation or plain just don’t give a fuck about them. There are still tons of people who don’t get it, in a CBS/YouGov joint poll this past fall, 40% of respondents said that they thought the aim of the protests was to disrespect the anthem and flag and 33% thought the goal was to disrespect the military and veterans. The demographics of that poll are maddeningly predictable, with 50% of white respondents saying Kaep and co. were trying to disrespect the flag, while only 11% of black respondents thought so. Similarly, 88% of black respondents said they believed the protests were related to unfair policing, while a noticeably lower percentage of white respondents, 67%, thought so. If you really think Kaepernick’s current situation—unemployed—has nothing to do with Kaepernick’s race as well as the racial climate in America, you’re being ignorant to the facts.
Veterans have been showing grand signs of support for Kaepernick and his protests since the beginning as well. Army Veteran Richard Allen Smith wrote an open letter, which was co-signed by 34 other veterans, in August 2016 (the first month of Kaepernick’s protests) supporting both Kaepernick’s right to protest as well as the substance of that protest, saying, “far from disrespecting our troops, there is no finer form of appreciation for our sacrifice than for Americans to enthusiastically exercise their right of freedom,” and that “the current state of affairs for people of colour in America is unsustainable and unacceptable.”
Hashtags such as #VeteransForKaepernick and #TakeAKnee also surfaced during Kaepernick and his peers’ protests, as veterans were tweeting out pictures of themselves with quotes like “we don’t join to serve/honour a flag or song, we join for the people and the expectations of what America could/can be.” A common theme that emerged among these posts from both current and former veterans was their anger with the fact that so many Americans felt they could speak on behalf of military men and women when they hadn’t even served in the armed forces themselves. In fact, it was a former Green Beret, Nate Boyer, who sat down with Kaepernick to discuss his protests right at the start. This conversation led to Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee next to his teammates instead of sitting on the bench as he’d done for the first two games of his protests.
To put Kaepernick’s plight for a job in the NFL into perspective, let’s take a look at a couple of other embattled former star QBs that are looking to get back in the game. Though I have no problem with Johnny Manziel’s attempt at a return to the NFL, it’s tough not to compare the fact that he’s still able to get workouts where over a dozen NFL teams show up, with the fact that Kaepernick can’t even get even one team to commit to watch him workout. Manziel’s limited success in the NFL coupled with his uncanny ability to attract trouble to himself on and off the field should really make him a less attractive option than a guy like Kaepernick, an NFL veteran who’s had playoff success. Seeing possible employers more interested in a serial trouble-maker with a child’s sense of right and wrong than with a principled professional like Kaepernick, who’s never had any troublesome run-ins with either team brass or the law, you’ve got to think other factors are at play. Namely, considerations by white owners about Kaepernick’s stance on racial injustice in America.
Robert Griffin III also got some good news recently, as he was able to sign with the Baltimore Ravens to be their backup QB. Considering Griffin’s gruesome injury history and recent struggle to find success on the football field since said injuries, it’s plain to see Kaepernick is the better player at this point in both of their careers. Griffin is just one of many examples of barely qualified signal callers who are getting contracts before a seasoned NFL veteran who’s had a decent career. One who’s even led a team to the Super Bowl. NFL teams—more specifically NFL owners—aren’t exactly making it hard to find anecdotal proof of the collusion Kaepernick is suing them for at this point.
Earlier this month the Seattle Seahawks finally agreed to watch Kaepernick workout, but quickly postponed it because he wasn’t guaranteeing how his activism would manifest itself going forward. No NFL team will even watch this guy throw a football because he might use his platform as an NFL star to promote positive social change for minorities in America. I think this recent issue with the Seahawks makes it pretty evident that the whole “he’s not getting signed because he’s just not that good a football player” argument is a load of horse-shit. It’s plain to see that the Seahawks are hesitating about watching the workout because of Kaepernick’s activism, not because of his skills on the football field, and you best believe it’s the same reason every other team in the league is treating him like he’s got the plague.
Let’s change gears now and talk about Kaep’s on-field successes and failures. Sure, I could reference that amazing season that seems like a generation ago when he was runnin’ and gunnin’ his way past Aaron Rodgers and others on his way to the Super Bowl in 2013. But let’s instead look to his overall body of work.
Despite the generally held notion that Kaepernick was a reckless and mistake-prone quarterback, his career passer rating of 88.9 is—wait for it—the 16th best career mark in NFL history. Yeah, that’s a real stat, look it up. He’s also thrown significantly more than twice as many TDs as INTs (a 72-30 ratio, I know, almost unbelievable right?) in his career. QBs like Kirk Cousins, Matt Stafford, Carson Palmer, Ryan Tannehill and even Andrew Luck haven’t even thrown twice as many touchdowns as interceptions in their lucrative careers. Admittedly, that’s not the best company to be in as a quarterback, but no one’s saying Kaepernick should be a Pro Bowler, maybe not even a starter (though all the above mentioned QBs start). There’s no doubt he deserves a roster spot though.
Now, about that final 2016 kneel-ridden season. Kaepernick was the backup to start the campaign and took a knee before each and every game that season whether he was starting or not. When brass finally decided they’d had enough of the Blainey Gabbert experiment at QB, they plugged in Kaepernick to pilot the Niners through the rest of what was to be a very turbulent season that saw the Niners fire their head coach for the second straight season (while also firing GM Trent Baalke at the end of the 2016 season as well). San Fran also boasted the NFL’s worst overall defence which allowed an opposing rusher 100+ yards in a record seven straight games.
Safe to say Kaep wasn’t coming into a very welcoming situation. Despite the adversity, Kaepernick managed to put together a decent statistical season for himself. It only included one win, but it’s pretty challenging to get those dubs when your team’s giving up 30 points per game, your best weapons are Quinton Patton, Jeremy Kerley, and Rod Streater and you’re getting sacked at the second highest rate of any QB in the league. Before you blame that high sack rate on Kaepernick’s scrambling style, note that San Fran’s other QB, Gabbert (who’s QB rating was an abysmal 68.2 in his six games), was not far behind him in 12th.
Still, Kaepernick tossed 16 touchdowns and ran for two more while turning the ball over just six total times in the process. His 90.7 QB rating was top 20, just below guys like Russell Wilson (92.6) and Alex Smith (91.2) and ahead of guys like Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and Carson Wentz, all of whom had the benefit of throwing to better players while playing behind better o-lines. Even if you switch over to the ESPN’s Total QB rating, Kaep was still 21st, once again ahead of perennial franchise QBs like Manning, Tannehill and Cam Newton. Not to mention his 1.2 interception percentage was sixth in the league, ahead of all the names above as well as Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger.
Despite Kaepernick’s decent-to-solid numbers during that 2016 campaign, he has yet to even scratch the surface of a chance with another team since he opted out of his contract with the Niners in early 2017. When you look at the stats, stack em next to the guys who are getting signed in the NFL as backups (EJ Manuel, Nate Peterman, and Geno fucking Smith, to name a few), add that together with his activism and this recent hiccup with the Seahawks, the racial climate in the US and the racial uniformity of the NFL’s ownership group (97% white, the other 3% being Asian) and that group’s penchant for discriminatory remarks and behaviours, I think we’ve got a pretty clear picture as to why Kaepernick has not signed with any NFL team yet.
Kaepernick wasn’t the only one standing-up-by-kneeling for increased social awareness of racial injustice and police brutality, he was joined in his protests by many other players, some of whom continued to carry the torch while Kaepernick has been sidelined by the owners. Players such as former Niners safety Eric Reid and former Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro. Both Reid and Vaccaro are considered solid, veteran players at their positions, and both became free agents at the end of their protest-filled 2017 seasons. And, surprise surprise, they are both unsigned as of this writing. Recently it was reported that Bengals owner Mike Brown questioned Reid at length on the kneeling issue when he came in for a free agent visit. This is yet more evidence that owners are looking to shun any player from the league that would draw any attention to the issue of racial injustice, an issue that most certainly makes an essentially exclusively white NFL owners group very uncomfortable.
The notion that I can be a great signing for your team for cheap, not because of my skill set but because I’ve protested systemic oppression, is ludicrous. If you think is, then your mindset is part of the problem too.
— Eric Reid (@E_Reid35) March 15, 2018
The NFL and its owners attempted to appease the players with a settlement offer worth a lot of money after mass protests during Week 3 of this past season, but guys like Reid knew it was just the wealthy team owners attempting to shush their players and keep them from talking about the real issues. There were 40 players that were part of the coalition negotiating with the NFL that did not want to take that deal, and about a dozen players that continued to protest even after the coalition took the deal against their wishes. While both sides of the agreement said this wasn’t a payoff to get the players to stand, the huge drop-off in player protests from its height in Week 3 of the 2017 season to the end of the regular season, when only a handful of protesters remained, said otherwise. Reid, the first man to join Kaepernick in his protests back in August 2016, predictably withdrew from the coalition and continued his protests throughout the rest of the season.
While the NFL futures of Kaepernick and Reid are looking bleak as hell right now, it’s clear that playing in the NFL is no longer the most important thing to them. Kaepernick didn’t play football at all during the 2017 season. He didn’t comment on Donald Trump’s remarks about him, or about the subsequent mass protests across the NFL. So what was Kaepernick doing all season? Exactly what he said he was trying to do with his protest: help, support and give a voice to oppressed individuals and communities. Kaepernick made a pledge to donate $1 million dollars to various charities and has just recently finished that campaign. You can read all about the charities he’s donated to on his website, and you can find a general breakdown in the graphic above.
The way Kaep donated his final 100k shows how important it is for him to have a big platform from which to share his message: it was divided into ten instalments of 10K, and for each instalment he was able to get a celebrity friend to match his contribution, which essentially turned his final 100k in donations into 200k. If it wasn’t for his status and visibility as an NFL player, there’s no way he’d have been able to get celebrities like Usher, Steph Curry, Meek Mill and Snoop Dogg to match his donations.
Conversations about racism, discrimination and police brutality are difficult and uncomfortable for everyone, but the answer is not always to sweep these issues under the rug. Even though everyone likes to relax for a few hours once in a while and just think about touchdowns and points instead of race and police brutality, there must be times when we do discuss race and police brutality. These days, it seems like we’re being inundated by issues that relate to Kaepernick’s protests on a weekly basis, with news about police brutality against minorities sandwiching news about anchors telling LeBron James to quit trying to be an activist and just “shut up and dribble”. Many people like to keep their politics and sports separate, though when an athlete wants to use the clout and visibility they’ve earned through their hard work to promote social justice and change, that’s far more important and impressive than anything they could possibly hope to achieve on the court or the field. We want our athletes to be role models, but when one stands up to the man for something he believes in, he’s shunned. He may never play in the NFL again, but I applaud Colin Kaepernick for what he’s done so far and I hope he continues down his path of activism for a long time to come.