colin kaepernick, screwed again

November 18, 2019
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So, what the hell was that? I suspect the workout that the National Football League scheduled for Colin Kaepernick this past Saturday was meant to shift the burden of the one-time-superstar quarterback’s gridiron absence off of the NFL and onto Kaepernick. The league would be able to say, “look, he’s no longer good enough.” Or maybe his interviews would go badly. Or maybe he’d do something else to screw things up. The powers that be wanted to somehow start erasing the sense that Kaepernick is a martyr because he’s been blacklisted from playing in the NFL since 2016, for insisting on kneeling during the playing of the national anthem as a protest of American police brutality.

The league that cares so deeply about its image wants to be seen as giving a quarterback who once heped take the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl a fair chance to get back in, thus shelving one of the dominant narratives of this NFL era: that Kaepernick kneeled for a real cause, was excommunicated out of the league for his actions, and has emerged as a modern-day political revolutionary and countercultural star. This was a case of the NFL trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube —but that was always going to be impossible. And the fiasco that took place only increased many fans’ sense that Kap is being wronged by the league and the old white men who run it.  

What happened in suburban Atlanta on Saturday reminds me of a caricature of a bad job interview where the employer doesn’t really want you, but he does want the appearance of wanting you. It was a hastily arranged meet-up, marred by legal issues and transparency concerns, with the league not even capably orchestrating the look of giving the QB a fair shot. Surely, Kap’s troubles will remind many people of stories of employer mistreatment they’ve heard of — or lived through. A PR stunt that was meant to absolve the NFL unraveled spectacularly and made the NFL look worse. Because it’s hard to hide your real intentions.

I expected that the teams who sent scouts to watch Kap would wait at least until they got to the field to start closing the door. I assumed teams would ask him if he would continue kneeling and by dangling the possibility of a return to the NFL, they would get him to say that he would not and then they’d somehow use that against him. It would be easy: “Just shut up about all that stuff and we’ll get you a jersey.” But Kap rejected the need for the question, ‘Have you changed?’ when he showed up to the workout in a t-shirt that said, “Kunta Kinte.”

For those who don’t know, “Kunta Kinte” was a character in Alex Haley’s Roots, a best-selling novel that became a landmark TV mini-series in the ‘70s. It was the true name, the original African name, of the central character who, after being kidnapped, brought to America, and forced into slavery, is beaten into accepting the name Toby. Kap’s shirt said, “I’m not a slave…I know who I really am…I have not been broken by the league.” He has not allowed the rejection of the NFL change him. Surely, he’s continued working out and staying NFL-ready because being back in the league is his dream, but he’s not going to sacrifice his soul for that goal. Which is more of a principle-driven stance than most of us have ever taken.

I was highly disappointed to see several Black professional sports analysts put all of this in the context of questioning Kap, perpetuating the false narrative that he’s the problem here. Former NFL coach Tony Dungy asked aloud if Kap really, truly wanted to play again, as if the real issue is whether the athlete’s desire has waned since his politics became national headlines. Stephen A. Smith opined that Kap enjoys being a martyr, thus psychoanalyzing a man he doesn’t really know. And I felt like I knew what Samuel L. Jackson’s Django Unchained character, Stephen, would have tweeted about all of this when I saw Jason Whitlock’s tweets. None of these men challenged or even questioned the NFL, its behavior and its real motives. None of them even doubted if the NFL was behaving in bad faith. They all sounded like men who would’ve said Rosa Parks should not be making a scene and Muhammad Ali should have enlisted. None of them demanded more from the NFL. It was lost on all of them that you’ve got to rock the boat in order to make change. The status quo is never of value to Black people. The only way we can find progress is in challenging it.

And once again, the real issue in this years-long “Colin Kaepernick versus the NFL” saga — police brutality — has been lost, sidelined by the circus that has popped up around Kap’s insistence on protesting it by kneeling before each NFL game. Everyone who tries to make all of this about Kap’s obstinance — or the flag, or the anthem, or American troops, or any other red herring — is standing in the way of progress, and helping undermine what’s really being addressed. I know people would rather not think about Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland and the many other names on the ever-lengthening list of Black people wrongfully killed by police violence but that’s the point. I don’t want to think about it anymore either. I don’t want to have any more of these snuff films where Black people get killed, playing back in my mind. I can’t take it — and I’m someone who cares deeply about the issue and about Black people. 

If we turn our backs on this issue because it’s too painful, we have abandoned Black people and turned our backs on justice. To help people pivot away from the dead is to help make their deaths more palatable. That is what’s at the heart of why Colin Kaepernick can not — and should not — shut up. He knows that is more important than anything else he can do. Kap can sleep well for life knowing he did his best to help his people even though it may cost him his dream.